Canadian miners have lodged a demand that work be halted at a controversial Chinese-staffed mine in British Columbia. They say Chinese miners' inability to speak fluent English represents a safety hazard.
The United Steelworkers union filed the complaint with the province's minister of mining, Rich Coleman, and chief inspector of mines, Al Hoffman.
The union's complaint cited "numerous violations" of the mining act and safety codes, but centred on the language skills of the Chinese miners.
The staffing arrangements at the mine sparked controversy last month when it was revealed that hundreds of Chinese miners would be imported to work there, after its operators had earlier advertised locally for Chinese-speaking miners.
On Thursday Steve Hunt, the United Steelworkers' director for western Canada, said: "Given the dangers posed by a continuous-production underground coal mine, it is critical that all workers have a clear understanding of workplace safety and rules at all times.
"Inserting a foreign national without fluency in English into such a maze of overlapping and precise safety requirements is a recipe for disaster."
The union wants work halted immediately at the Murray River mine, more than 1,000 kilometres north of Vancouver, where staffing is in the hands of HD Mining, a firm allied to mine operator Canadian Dehau International.
The country's state mining minister could not be reached for comment.
The Chinese-funded project had previously been touted by British Columbia's government for its job creation credentials. But approval has been granted for 201 Chinese miners, who have started arriving to begin sampling work. The federal government announced a fortnight ago that the scheme under which the miners' arrival was approved would be put under review in the wake of the outcry.
The United Steelworkers said the Health Safety and Reclamation Code for Mines in British Columbia requires miners to have "appropriate facility in the English language" to understand safety rules. HD Mining had previously said the workers would be taught about 100 words in English as part of their training.
"Given the importance of competency to the safe operation of a mine, the idea of teaching employees only 100 words of English is extremely disturbing, and it is clearly contrary to the purposes of the mine code," Hunt said. "This rudimentary knowledge of English will not even come close to satisfying the requirements of the code."
Despite the union's concerns, at least some of the mine workers appear to boast more than bare-bones ability in English.
In an interview with the Tumbler Ridge News this week, a miner who arrived from China a few weeks ago said he admired the surroundings in remote northern British Columbia. "I feel very good here. It's very peaceful for me. The environment is very good," Li Huizhi was quoted as saying by the newspaper.
Li - who is among the first batch of 13 Chinese staff undergoing language training in Tumbler Ridge, the closest town to the mine site - said there were misconceptions in Canada about Chinese mining practices and standards.
"When I work in China, it's very safe, and I feel very protected," he said.