Canada reviews foreign-worker scheme amid China mine row

Outcry over adverts by China-linked company for mine workers with Putonghua skills sparks review of temporary-labour programme

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 5:52am

The Canadian government has announced a review of its programme for temporary foreign workers. It follows the controversial decision to import hundreds of Chinese coal miners for a Chinese-funded project in northern British Columbia.

Diane Finley, minister of human resources and skills development, said the project's job advertisements seeking miners with Putonghua skills suggested that attempts to recruit Canadian staff had not been sincere.

The South China Morning Post was the first to report last month on the existence of the advertisements, posted in the name of Vancouver-based mining company Canadian Dehua International Mines Group.

Canadian Dehua - founded by Chinese-born businessman Liu Naishun - plans to open four underground coal mines in northern British Columbia in partnership with investors in China, with the first batch of 201 Chinese employees approved by the government to arrive this autumn, to the anger of unionists.

"Our government believes that Canadians must always have first crack at job opportunities in Canada," Finley said in a statement on Thursday. "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 Dehua Mines subsidiary in British Columbia.

"In particular, we are not satisfied that sufficient efforts were made to recruit or train Canadians interested in these jobs. Specifically, the requirement that applicants have skills in a foreign language does not appear to be linked to a genuine job requirement," the minister said.

The adverts, which did not specify whether Putonghua skills were a preference or a requirement, have been removed. Up to 2,000 Chinese miners could eventually be required to staff Canadian Dehua's four mines in northern British Columbia.

Steve Hunt, director of United Steelworkers Western Canada, said in a statement: "The government is finally doing the right thing. Since the beginning, this story just didn't add up. We strongly believe that the foreign-workers programme is being abused, not just in this case but in a number of different ways."

Hunt said the government should halt the recruitment and use of foreign temporary workers in British Columbia's coal mines pending the review's results.

He added: "Aside from announcing a review, the federal government must take immediate steps to demonstrate that it truly believes Canadians must always have first crack at job opportunities in Canada."

The first batch of Chinese workers has already started arriving at Canadian Dehua's Murray River mine, near the town of Tumbler Ridge, 1,100 kilometres north of Vancouver. It was unclear whether Finley's announcement would affect the miners whose work permits have already been approved.

Two unions have sought Federal Court injunctions to block the employment of the 201 workers, who are scheduled to begin bulk sampling of the Murray River coal seams. But while Finley admitted flaws in the scheme had been exposed by the controversy over the miners, she said legal action could only complicate the review process.

"It is clear to our government that there are some problems with the temporary foreign worker programme. We take these very seriously and are currently reviewing the programme. Litigation could impede this work and lead to court battles rather than a genuine fix.

"In conducting our review of the programme, we recognise the impact it may have on Canadians employed in connection with the Dehua Mines project. We will seek to avoid unintended harm to their jobs."

John Cavanagh, chief executive officer of Canadian Dehua, said that in light of the legal action involving the company, he could not comment on whether the review of the temporary-foreign-worker scheme would have an impact on the firm's plans.