The federal government is reviewing its Temporary Foreign Worker Program in light of controversy surrounding the hiring of 201 Chinese workers for the development of a coal mine in northern B.C.
“It is clear to our government that there are some problems with the Temporary Foreign Worker Program,” said Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development Diane Finley in a statement on Nov. 8. “We take these very seriously, and are currently reviewing the Program.”
In 2011, there were 22 600 temporary foreign workers in B.C., and 265 of them worked in the mining, oil and gas industry.
The Temporary Foreign Worker Program is designed to fill a domestic labour shortage. A company that wishes to use the program must prove that there is a lack of qualified applicants and that effort was made to recruit or train domestic workers.
The review is motivated in part by two B.C. labour unions that dispute HD Mining International Ltd. hiring temporary foreign workers for the Murray River project near Tumbler Ridge, B.C. HD Mining is a partnership between Vancouver-based company Dehua International Mines Group Inc. and the Huiyong Holding Group, a Chinese company that owns a 55 per cent stake.
HD Mining received approval to hire migrant workers through a labour market opinion in April 2012.
The International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 115 and the Construction and Specialized Workers Union Local 1611 applied to a Federal Court to overturn the ruling that allowed HD Mining the worker permits.
“Local 115 has members who are qualified and available to perform the type of work which is involved with bulk sampling who are presently unemployed or underemployed and who would be willing to work at the new mine,” said Brian Cochrane, the business manager of the IUOE Local 115, in an affidavit submitted to the Federal Court. “This type of work is routine in mining and is the type of work that Local 115 members frequently perform.”
The union takes further issue with HD Mining’s recruitment process. Some job advertisements included Mandarin as an asset, which “does not appear to be linked to a genuine job requirement,” according to Finley. A spokesperson from HD Mining has said these advertisements were posted in error, and the B.C. government says these ads were only posted after HD Mining had already received permission to hire foreign workers.
The federal government is also investigating whether or not the company charged application fees to Chinese candidates, which is illegal under B.C.’s Employment Standards Act.
The B.C. government and jobs minister Pat Bell are defending HD Mining. The Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training released two factsheets about the “myths and facts” surrounding migrant workers. The factsheets stated that HD Mining followed regulations set out in the Temporary Foreign Workers Program.
The factsheets also included information about the provincial government’s efforts to expand training for domestic workers, which lessens the reliance on temporary workers. The Skills and Training Plan for British Columbia released in September aims to align labour training with the industry jobs currently in demand.
The case against HD Mining is the latest in a long run of criticisms of the Temporary Foreign Workers Program. The program has come under attack in the past for allowing companies to hire short-term migrant workers rather than long-term Canadian workers and for exposing international workers to unsafe, underpaid conditions.
A preliminary hearing for the unions’ action took place in Vancouver on Nov. 14. A judge was set to make a decision on Nov. 16, but the Federal Court has yet to publish its decision. Until a decision is made, HD Mining has been granted permission to continue gathering samples in the proposed mine area. Seventeen labourers had arrived from China to conduct exploratory work as of Nov. 14, according to a Crown lawyer.
The federal review of the entire Temporary Foreign Worker Program is underway, but as of press time, there have been no updates since Minister Finley’s announcement on Nov. 8.