Chinese miners face frosty reception in northern Canada
Workers face reception as chilly as weather when they arrive in northern Canada, where locals think they should be doing the jobs themselves
Ian Young in Vancouver
When 200 Chinese miners arrive at the remote Murray River coal patch in northwestern Canada in the next few weeks, they risk a cool welcome in more ways than one.
The site east of the Rocky Mountains is just beginning its long descent into a brutal winter. Snow has already started falling. Temperatures at the forested site, near Tumbler Ridge, 1,100 kilometres north of Vancouver, can hit minus 50 degrees Celsius.
The mine is being hailed as a boon to far-flung communities closest to the site. But some are not so pleased by the imminent arrival of the Chinese miners, who will begin bulk coal sampling at the mine, the first of four in northern British Columbia being opened by Canadian Dehua International Mines Group and Chinese investors.
Stephen Hunt, director of the United Steelworkers for Western Canada (USW), scoffed at suggestions the Chinese would bring skills domestic workers lacked.
"It's simply not true. We've been training miners here in Canada for 100 years," Hunt said.
The Bargaining Council of the BC Building Trades Unions, representing 15 other local unions, has also complained bitterly about the plans. Nevertheless, the importation of the first 200 miners has already been approved by Ottawa under a temporary foreign-worker scheme.
Domestic job ads placed in Canadian Dehua's name have fuelled suspicion that the company had no serious intention of finding local miners. Hunt accused Canadian Dehua of deliberately seeking to exclude locals by seeking staff with Mandarin language skills and offering sub-par pay, but which, for a Chinese miner, "would be like winning the lottery".
Advertising for local staff is required of Canadian firms before they hire temporary foreign staff. A job ad for miners at Canadian Dehua's proposed Gething site, near the town of Hudson's Hope, offered C$27 (HK$214) to C$38 per hour.
That was about half of what a Canadian miner could expect for similar work, Hunt said. A job ad for miners at Tumbler Ridge, the town nearest to Murray River and the remaining two sites, stated only that the salary was by negotiation.
Both ads, apparently withdrawn last month, sought applicants who knew Mandarin.
Canadian Dehua has received a deluge of bad press since it was revealed by the Vancouver Sun last week that most of the miners at Murray River and its other BC sites would be Chinese. The workers already approved for one Murray River mine, which could be operational by 2015, will be the advance guard for up to 2,000 Chinese who will work on the four projects, according to local reports.
The president of Canadian Dehua is Liu Naishun, a Chinese-born Vancouver businessman who has been trying to set up mines in northern BC for years. Liu, who said "dedicated efforts" had been made to hire locally, said he could not confirm exact numbers and ratios of Chinese-to-domestic staffing, as this was the responsibility of allied firm HD Mining International.
The Vancouver Sun, citing a source at HD Mining, reported that 480 out of 600 miners eventually working at Murray River would be Chinese, and similar numbers and ratios would apply to the other projects.
Liu said it would be "unusual to have no criticism" of the plan to bring in Chinese workers. "Dehua didn't intend to hire foreign workers, but at the beginning stage, we needed to build the mines," he said.
He predicted that Canadian staff would eventually take over. "It will take at least two years to transfer the knowledge and technology," he said.
"It is certain the progress of our projects will bring long-term positive effects to both the Chinese and Canadian economies."
But the USW's Hunt is not convinced. "This is not a job-creation programme for BC. It's a project by and for Chinese corporations, who intend to bring temporary workers, dig up the coal and ship it to China."
He said opposition to the proposal was not "an anti-Chinese thing. If you need to bring in workers from overseas, then bring them in as immigrants, give them the proper visas, and let them integrate into the community", he said. "I actually fear for these workers, I really do."
Hunt said that once the Chinese arrived, the United Steelworkers union would try to inform them of their employment rights, although he admitted that securing access to the remote mining camp might be difficult.
"But if not us, then who?" he asked.