MAC: Mines and Communities

Coal company wants to hire Chinese workers for B.C. mine

Published by MAC on 2007-05-28

Coal company wants to hire Chinese workers for B.C. mine

China-backed Dehua says Canada lacks a labour pool that is skilled underground

WENDY STUECK, Toronto Globe & Mail

28th May 2007

VANCOUVER -- A Chinese-backed company pursuing a coal project in northeastern British Columbia wants to have a mine up and running by 2009 - and proposes to bring as many as 400 workers from China to build it.

Canadian Dehua International Mines Group Inc., a Vancouver-based company whose shareholders include a Chinese steel manufacturer, has filed a project description with the B.C. government that says its proposed Gething project "will require approximately 400 employees with specific skills in underground coal mining."

Since there are few underground coal mines in Canada, the document states, "Dehua will likely source skilled labour from China to meet staffing requirements."

The notion of bringing that many foreign workers into northern B.C. raises concerns for labour groups and the Mining Association of British Columbia.

"If you bring in foreign workers and put them in a camp and they work in a mine - how is that developing resources for long-lasting impact at the local level?" said Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour.

"For workers, this is the ultimate sellout of our resources."

The mining association, like other industry groups, has been waving warning flags over a labour crunch hitting construction, mining and oil and gas operations in B.C.

But "the concept of importing an entire mine crew is something that we have not seen before," MABC chief executive officer Michael McPhie said. "And we would want to take a really serious look at the implications."

Dehua officials were not immediately available for comment. The company's website says its Gething project would produce two million tonnes of metallurgical coal a year and have a mine life of more than 30 years.

That makes it comparable to open-pit mines like Western Canadian Coal Corp.'s nearby Wolverine Mine, which produced about two million tonnes of coal last year.

Dehua's project description says immigration of up to 400 employees into small communities will have "cultural and social ramifications," but that the company would work with local governments and community representatives to "alleviate potential impacts."

The Gething site is northwest of Chetwynd, which has a population of about 2,500 people. The West Moberly and Saulteau Indian bands have reserves in the area and the McLeod Lake Indian Band also has traditional ties to the area.

Aboriginals are underrepresented in the mining and oil and gas sectors and represent a key potential labour pool, says the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada.

Dehua does not say in its project description what wages or other benefits it would provide mine employees. Foreign workers are covered by Canadian laws but there is a concern that foreign workers may be willing to work for lower wages.

Wages vary from mine to mine, but the highest-paid trade workers in B.C.'s coal mines can expect to earn more than $30 an hour, while labourers can earn $20 an hour or more.

B.C. is not the first coal-producing region to look at importing workers to ease a labour crunch.

When Kentucky's coal sector was facing a severe labour crunch about three years ago, one major operator suggested bringing in workers from Mexico, said Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.

"And the poop hit the fan," Mr. Caylor said. "We're going to get to that point, maybe in 15 or 20 years, when we are a more bilingual state. But we aren't ready for it right now. And there was a lot of public outcry and opposition."

The idea died - in part, Mr. Caylor said - because of a state requirement that certified miners must be able to speak and read English.

Since then the state's mining labour crunch has eased, he added, as a result of state and federal training programs, aggressive recruitment campaigns by mining companies and, more recently, a decline in coal prices.

Other coal-producing states have experienced similar labour shortages, Mr. Caylor said, and the cyclical nature of the coal business means such shortages could occur again. But he does not expect foreign workers to make many inroads into U.S. coal mines, at least not in the next 10 years.

"All the states have had the worker crunch. But I guarantee you, common sense means you would have the same knee-jerk reaction to foreign workers. I know if this came up in West Virginia, [the reaction] would be worse than in Kentucky."


China's coal mining sector is notoriously deadly, with more than 5,000 deaths last year.

Foreign workers can come to Canada under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program when no Canadian citizens or permanent residents are available to fill positions.

The program was amended in February, allowing workers to stay in Canada for 24 months - up from 12 months - without seeking an extension.

The number of temporary workers in B.C. has been rising gradually, says the B.C. Federation of Labour - 14,000 in 2000 to 44,000 by mid-2006.

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