Union fights influx of Chinese miners in B.C. court
James Keller, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, December 12, 2012 11:52AM PST
Last Updated Wednesday, December 12, 2012 6:55PM PST
It could be more than four years before any Canadian miners are hired at a controversial underground coal project in northern British Columbia and over 14 years before all the temporary foreign workers are gone, says a transition plan prepared by the company behind the mining proposal.
HD Mining submitted the document to the federal government earlier this year as it applied for temporary foreign worker permits to bring 201 Chinese miners to its proposed Murray River coal mine near Tumbler Ridge, B.C.
The plan was released Wednesday as a pair of unions challenging those permits asked a Federal Court to stop any more workers from arriving.
The Chinese-owned company has said it must hire foreign workers because there are no Canadians trained in the specialized form of mining that would be used at Murray River, and it has stressed the Chinese miners' jobs are temporary.
The document indicates the company plans to use temporary foreign workers to build the mine, which it expects would take 30 months to complete. If the mine is approved, temporary foreign workers would be used at the mine for the first two years of operation as they set up a training school and start recruiting and training Canadians.
After that, the document says it would take another decade to shift the work to Canadians at a rate of 10 per cent of the mine's workforce per year.
The B.C. Federation of Labour, which isn't directly involved in the case but has been a vocal critic of the mine, seized on the document to suggest the public has been misled about the temporary nature of the Chinese miners' work.
"They're talking 14-and-a-half years -- that would be unacceptable to anybody in Canada," Sinclair said in an interview.
"This is a total abuse of the program. There's nothing temporary about any of these jobs."
The proposed Murray River mine has been the source of controversy since details of the foreign worker permits surfaced in news reports two months ago. The federal human resources minister has said her ministry has its own concerns about whether the rules were followed and announced last month that the entire temporary foreign worker program is now under review.
HD Mining has proposed a $300-million underground mine southwest of Tumbler Ridge, about 140 kilometres west of Grande Prairie, Alta. The court heard that 17 Chinese miners are already in B.C. and another 60 are expected to arrive this weekend as the company prepares for preliminary exploration work while waiting for full approval for the mine.
HD Mining has already said it would take 10 years to transition work to Canadians, but it has not said it would be more than four years before the transition would begin.
Spokeswoman Jody Shimkus said HD Mining wants to hire Canadians as soon as it can, but she insisted it will take time to transfer the skills needed to work in the mine, especially given the current labour shortage facing the industry.
"If we're successful transferring the skill set before then, that would be wonderful," Shimkus said in an interview.
"But when we submitted the plan, we also submitted the information on the overall shortage of skilled workers both in B.C. and Canada, so we will be competing with all other sectors and natural resource operations for that pool of workers."
Shimkus noted the company recently signed an agreement with Northern Lights College to create a curriculum to train workers.
B.C. Jobs Minister Pat Bell has been one of the mine's most vocal supporters, repeatedly defending the company's plan to use temporary foreign workers and suggesting the temporary jobs are linked to exploration work that will last six to eight months.
Bell did not make himself available for an interview Wednesday, instead issuing a written statement that ignored a question about the length of HD Mining's planned transition to Canadian workers.
Instead, Bell's statement said the latest court documents released in Federal Court show HD Mining made extensive efforts to meet provincial workplace safety rules. The transition plan outlines the steps the company has put into place to ensure the mine meets provincial rules, including asking B.C.'s inspector of mines to review the issue of the use of Mandarin at the mine.
The Federal Court case linked to the mine was launched by International Union of Operating Engineers and the Construction and Specialized Workers Union, which are seeking to have the company's temporary foreign worker permits thrown out.
The unions were in court Wednesday asking for an injunction to prevent more workers from arriving -- including the 60 expected to arrive this weekend -- until the legal challenge can be heard.
The Federal Court judge hearing the case was not expected to rule on the injunction on Wednesday.