MAC: Mines and Communities

Canadian Unions go to court over use of temporary workers at BC coal mine

Published by MAC on 2012-11-19
Source: Statement, Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC)

From Ramsey Hart, MAC Canadian co-editor: Controversy continues to swirl around the planned hiring of temporary foreign workers to staff a British Columbia  coal mine.

Labour unions are challenging the permits granted by the federal government in court, while the federal and provincial governments are both reviewing aspects of the plan.

The federal government has even been forced to re-examine the whole temporary foreign worker program.

Temporary workers have been a reality in Canada's tar sands' mining for many years but this is one of the first - and certainly highest profile - cases where they could be used in conventional mining.

The situation is a symptom of the extractivist fever that has taken hold in Canada.  Federal and provincial governments aggressively support new mining projects with a "permit now think about consequences later" mentality. 

Additonal comment by Nostromo Research: It's not only in Canada that a mining company's plan to bring in foreign workers has aroused controversy. A fortnight ago, London Mining plc announced its intention to recruit some 2,000 Chinese workers for a potential iron ore venture in Greenland. See: The Coming of a Perfect Arctic Storm

Over recent years, the influx of Chinese mineworkers and management personnel at extractive projects in several countries has aroused the ire of local people and other groups - notably in Zambia and Papua New Guinea.

This is not to say that all such interventions have resulted in conflict, while the targeting of Chinese citizens has sometimes smacked of racial prejudice.

However, in the current Canadian case, there appears to be a wholly-valid argument that  foreign temporary workers would take jobs that Canadians are qualified to perform (or for which they could be trained).

Equally important, Chinese workers themselves would be open to exploitation under the proposed employment plan.

Operating Engineers and Labourers Union apply to Federal Court to overturn Fed’s decision on Temporary Foreign Workers

By International Union of Operating Engineers and the Construction and Specialized Workers Union

5 November 2012

Two unions involved in mining industry ask Federal Court to overturn Federal Government’s decision to allow Temporary Foreign Workers to mine coal in Tumbler Ridge.

Two of BC’s major unions with members working in the mining industry have applied to the court to overturn the decision allowing work permits to be issued to over 200 foreign workers to work at HD Mining International’s planned underground coal mine near Tumbler Ridge B.C. known as the Murray River Project.

The International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 115 and the Construction and Specialized Workers Union (Labourers), Local 1611 have asked the Federal Court to overturn the decision by the federal government to issue labour market opinions (LMOs) which allow the company to recruit Temporary Foreign Workers to do these jobs.

“members in our union are ready to do these jobs,” Cochrane said.

The purpose of the LMO procedure is to ensure that Canadians have first opportunity to obtain employment and that foreign workers do not deprive Canadians of employment opportunities or undercut prevailing Canadian wage rates. Over 200 LMOs were issued for the Murray Hill Mine, and no Canadians have been hired.

The federal government must have concluded that there were no qualified Canadians available to work at the Murray River Mine at prevailing Canadian wage rates if the regulations governing the temporary foreign worker program were followed.

“This is absolutely not the case,” said Mark Olsen, Business Manager of the Labourers Union, a union which has long been involved in mining and underground construction. “There is a long history of mining in BC and there are many workers available with the skills required for this work. We have represented mine workers in B.C. for decades.”

The mine is at a pre-production stage, and the initial work involves the collection of a bulk sample of coal. “We have members who can do that work and are available. If the mine then proceeds to the production stage and the owners bring in specific production equipment, it’s a relatively simple matter to train for that equipment. This type of training is performed routinely by mining companies operating in Canada” said Olsen. Olsen further points out that the Murray River Mine is expected to be in production for decades.

The regulations require that there be an actual labour shortage...

Brian Cochrane is the Business Manager of the IUOE, Local 115, which also has a long history of representing miners in the province.  Cochrane has sworn an affidavit which is to be filed in court later today, detailing his union’s experience in mining operations, prevailing rates of pay and other issues.

“There are members in our union who are ready, willing and able to do these jobs,” Cochrane said. His affidavit notes that “Right now, we have 474 people on our dispatch list who are out of work, including 100 in the northeastern region of BC.”

Cochrane also points out that the wage rates that were advertised for the work on the Murray River Project are considerably lower than what is paid for mining work in Canada.

“For instance, HD Mining advertised for a certified heavy duty mechanic, working underground, at $25 to $32 an hour with no benefits indicated. That position pays over $42 an hour, with full benefits, at mines that are currently operating in Canada, including the Peace River Coal Mine at Tumbler Ridge.”

The unions are arguing that federal officials operating the Temporary Foreign Workers Program did not follow their own regulations which set out the conditions which must be satisfied before LMOs can be issued permitting the importing of foreign workers.

Among other things, the regulations require that there be an actual labour shortage, that the jobs be advertised widely, that wages paid to foreign workers be equivalent to local wages, and that the employer make an effort to train local workers if required.

Lawyers Charles Gordon and Lorne Waldman filed the application with the court on Friday on behalf of the two unions. If the application for leave is granted, the court would then set a date for the case to be heard.

Controversy over Chinese miners in B.C. prompts review

Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) News

8 November 2012

Controversial plans to hire 201 Chinese workers at a proposed mine in northern British Columbia have prompted Ottawa to announce a review of its entire foreign worker program, with the government suggesting the case has revealed deeper problems with a system designed to fill short-term labour shortages.

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley issued a statement Thursday saying the Conservative government isn't satisfied HD Mining Ltd. followed all the rules when it sought foreign worker permits for its proposed mine near Tumbler Ridge, B.C., which she said raises broader questions about the program.

"We are not satisfied with what we have learned about the process that led to permission for hundreds of foreign workers to gain jobs (at the HD Mining site)," the statement said.

"In particular, we are not satisfied that sufficient efforts were made to recruit or train Canadians interested in these jobs. ... It is clear to our government that there are some problems with the temporary foreign worker program."

HD Mining has hired the Chinese workers as part of exploration work at the proposed coal mine site, located about 200 kilometres west of Grande Prairie, Alta. The mine is awaiting an environmental assessment and has not yet been approved.

The company has said there aren't any qualified workers in Canada who can work at the mine, which will be using a method of underground mining that's not in use anywhere else in Canada. But labour unions and other critics have argued there are Canadians willing and able to take those jobs.

Chinese language skills required

A B.C. union has also raised concerns about ads it says were posted to job boards in Canada that listed Mandarin as a language requirement, though the company has insisted applicants weren't required to speak the language.

Finley's statement highlighted the language issue as a particular concern.

"The requirement that applicants have skills in a foreign language does not appear to be linked to a genuine job requirement," Finley's statement said.

HD Mining declined comment on Thursday. The company is a partnership between China-based Huiyong Holding Group, which owns a 55 per cent stake, and Canadian Dehua International Mines Group Inc.

B.C.'s jobs minister, Pat Bell, who has been one of the project's most vocal supporters, did not make himself available for an interview Thursday. He issued a brief statement that ignored Finely's criticisms of the HD Mining project.

Bell said the province is focused on promoting mining development, and it's up to the federal government to address any problems with the temporary foreign worker program.

Bell has repeatedly defended HD Mining's decision to bring in foreign workers, and his ministry has released two fact sheets designed to debunk "myths" surrounding the project.

Those fact sheets said the company followed all of the necessary regulations and repeated the company's denial that Mandarin was job a requirement.

Hiring already under scrutiny

The review of the temporary foreign worker program is the latest to overshadow the coal mine project.

The B.C. government is looking into allegations recruiters in China asked potential applicants for fees, which is illegal under provincial law.

Ottawa is already investigating the foreign worker permits that were granted in this case, though Finley's statement did not say whether there has been any change to those permits. Her office said the permits remain under review.

And two unions have asked the Federal Court to throw out the permits.

It's not clear what the federal government's review of the foreign worker program will look like, or when it might be complete.

The program is designed to fill acute labour shortages.

A company seeking temporary foreign worker permits must prove there is a lack of qualified applicants in Canada and demonstrate it has already attempted to hire or train Canadians.

Labour groups and Opposition politicians have long criticized the program. Complaints range from arguments that a lack of oversight puts migrant workers at risk to allegations that companies use the permits to bring in cheap labour.

Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, said in a statement he welcomes the review, which his organization requested.

"This program is seriously flawed and is open to wide-spread abuse," he said. "The government was forced to lift the curtain on one case involving temporary foreign workers and found that our concerns about the entire program were obviously justified."

Should temporary foreign workers be abolished?

Sinclair said the program is about exploiting temporary workers who can be sent home on a moment's notice, not about immigration and nation building.

While workers can take full-time jobs and stay for four years, they don't have the right to raise families or even complain about safety concerns, he added.

Stephen Hunt of the United Steelworkers union, which has called on the federal government to rescind the permits for the Chinese miners, said the entire temporary foreign worker program should be abolished.

Hunt said the federal government should instead focus on training Canadians and attracting qualified immigrants.

"This supplants the immigration program, and where people used to be able to come to Canada and contribute to the fabric of Canada, this really, really undermines that," Hunt said in an interview.

"It's a way to suppress wages, labour costs, training. There are no safeguards."

The temporary foreign worker program has been the source of controversy several times in the past.

There have been concerns that live-in care workers and agricultural workers are particularly at risk of being abused or forced to work in unsafe working conditions.

Just last month, an Alberta man pleaded guilty to criminal negligence charges related to a head-on collision that killed four temporary foreign workers and injured another.

Earlier this year, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced changes designed to prevent employers linked to the sex trade from obtaining temporary foreign worker permits to hire strippers, escorts and massage parlour workers.

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