Imported Chinese coal miners have B.C. labour unions up in arms

BC Federation of Labour head Jim Sinclair talks on the phone at the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station in Vancouver …The importation of coal miners from China to work on new Chinese-backed coal projects in northeastern British Columbia is already a political hot potato in the province.

Even though the 200 initial jobs are supposed to be temporary, required because of a shortage of untrained underground coal miners in Canada, the move has caused a stir, especially among labour unions.

Now the B.C. Federation of Labour is demanding the program be suspended over the way the miners were recruited, including an alleged requirement that the would-be miners pay hefty recruiting fees.

In a letter to B.C. Jobs Minister Pat Bell, federation president Jim Sinclair also cast doubt on whether Vancouver-based HD Mining International really could not find any qualified Canadians among the hundreds of applicants.

A spokesman for Bell's ministry said the government will investigate whether the recruitment program violated the B.C. Employment Standards Act, the Globe and Mail reported Tuesday.

[ Related: B.C. investigates claims about Chinese mine-worker recruitment ]

HD Mining vice-president Jody Shimkus said it received nearly 300 applications from Canadians and interviewed almost 100 but none were qualified to work in the Murray River mine, located near Tumbler Ridge, B.C.

"We require temporary foreign workers because we are introducing a highly mechanized form of long-wall mining to the province," Shimkus told CBC News. "There's currently no active long-wall mining going on in Canada or B.C."

Sinclair alleges Chinese recruiters were charging up to $12,500 in fees to applicants and suggesting to them they might be able eventually to bring their families to Canada. The wages were also well below Canadian rates and workers were offered the chance to buy a certificate of qualification and training for $160, he claimed.

The allegations were based heavily on an investigative report published last week by The Tyee online newspaper. A reporter posed as a job applicant on a Chinese online site that connected him with recruiters for the mining project.

Both HD Mining and Chinese-backed partner Dehua International say they have nothing to do with the recruitment ads exposed by The Tyee, the Globe said.

Bell told The Canadian Press the Chinese miners are needed to extract bulk samples from the mine site and that Canadians likely will be hired if the mine goes ahead.

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In a column in The Tyee on Monday, David Schreck, a former NDP MLA and adviser to premier Glen Clark, wrote that there have been concerns about the federal temporary workers program for some time.

A 2009 report by the federal auditor general noted that immigration program managers and officers were concerned about misrepresentation and fraud from workers, employers and their representatives, Schreck noted.

"Citizenship and Immigration Canada [CIC] and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada [HRSDC] should implement mechanisms that would better enable them to ensure the integrity of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and the protection of individuals," the report said, according to Schreck.

(Photo courtesy Reuters)