In recent days, the building and construction industry in Australia has been rocked by allegations that a former Sydney University of Technology staffer was being investigated for allegations of corrupt activity.
Disturbing though this is, problems in Australia are nothing compared to those in the Canadian province of Quebec, where an inquiry set up to examine corruption with regard to public service contracts has heard that corrupt practices are systemic in the industry and that large parts of the industry are controlled by the Mafia and organised crime syndicates.
Problems regarding corruption in the construction industry in Quebec have long been suspected. Media reports about links with organised crime and practices such as discrimination, intimidation, collusion and corruption have been common since the latter part of last decade. That nothing has been done thus far is an indictment on leadership within the province.
Now, at last, action is happening. A public Commission of Inquiry into the matter looking into practices within the industry has just resumed after investigators spent three months examining the financial records of a number of municipalities over the summer break. Superior Court Justice France Charbonneau says the public is set to hear evidence regarding corruption, violence and extortion.
This week, the inquiry heard one of its most disturbing testimonies so far. Joseph Pistone, a former FBI agent who infiltrated the New York Mafia and helped convict more than 200 gangsters, told the inquiry that members of the Mafia routinely rake in huge profits at the expense of taxpayers, workers and legitimate builders by infiltrating unions and controlling the supply of raw materials.
Essentially, Pistone says, Mafia members would gain control of labour unions either by starting their own or by getting themselves elected to senior positions within existing unions. Once inside, Mafiosos were able to extort money from construction firms by telling members to work slowly on specific jobs and threatening bosses that the slow performance would continue unless payments were made. Another scheme involved Mafia-controlled firms invoicing for labour charges at unionised rates and then using cheaper, non-union labour, pocketing the difference.
Pistone’s testimony is just the latest to indicate the extent of the problems. In June, Michel Gagnon, the president of an association representing government engineers in the province, testified that it was rare that an engineer in the transport department ever looks at plans for construction contracts paid for by that department. That has serious consequences for public safety, as evidenced by the collapse last year of a 25-tonne concrete beam in a sunken portion of the Ville-Marie Autoroute.
While it is pleasing to hear some of the truth finally come out, that such rampant behaviour has apparently been going on for so long is appalling.
Disappointing though reports of problems with corruption in Australia are, they pale in comparison with that of Canada’s French-speaking province.