VANCOUVER (Canadian OH&S News)
An influx of temporary foreign workers into British Columbia’s mining sector is taking jobs from Canadian workers and making the mines more dangerous, according to the organizing body for British Columbia trade unions.
In an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Bargaining Council of BC Building Trade Unions argues that the planned importation of Chinese workers this week by Canadian Dehua International Mines Group Inc. is a strategy for the companies to employ lower-paid employees who are not familiar with Canadian mine safety culture and regulations.
The more than 200 miners are being brought in to mine coal in northern British Columbia, with the potential for up to 2,000 workers eventually coming over.
“The problem is the federal and provincial governments; they’re fixated on bringing investment dollars to British Columbia. And that’s great, that’s fantastic that the Chinese are willing to invest $1.5-billion. But there’s another part of the puzzle here: we have to make sure that there are Canadian jobs, and local jobs in particular,” said Mark Olsen, president of the council. The council represents 15 unions and 35,000 craft construction workers in the province.
“In our opinion, there is the requisite number of hard rock miners in B.C. and Canada to fill these positions, but unions are completely cut out of the loop now to determine if there is a shortage,” he added.
In 2011, approximately 22,600 temporary foreign workers were employed across British Columbia, up from just more than 21,000 in 2011. Of those, 265 were in mining and oil and gas extraction — up from 85 the year before.
The letter, also sent to federal and provincial ministers and critics as well as various media outlets, noted that almost 2,000 Chinese coal miners were killed on the job last year, in contrast to the 142 workplace fatalities in British Columbia across all sectors. China is currently the largest coal producer in the world, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Olsen said with that although the mines are supposed to work under the province’s safety and health conditions, bringing in foreign workers and supervisors includes bringing in a work culture that does not understand safety as it applies in Canada.
“These workers will not complain [about the conditions]. Would you complain if you know if you’re brought in and if you complain, you are going to be sent out on the next plane?” he asked.
“Normally, inspections start with the concerns of the crew. Are there going to be sufficient safety committees? Is there going to be a real, working safety committee? Doubt it. Are workers going to be able to stand up for their own air quality and underground conditions to make sure they’re treated properly? Doubt it.”
Minister says full-time jobs reserved for locals
Addressing media reports on the temporary workers, Pat Bell, the province’s minister of jobs, tourism and skills training, reaffirmed that there was a drought of Canadians with the necessary skills to do underground sampling work.
Bell added that the jobs are only for a six- to eight-month period during the environmental assessments and “qualified British Columbians will be at the front of the line for full-time positions.”
Olsen accused the mine owner of offering sub-par pay for the job so no Canadian underground miner would apply, fuelling an artificial demand for temporary workers. He said the job was advertised as paying only $20 per hour.
“It’s got to be double that,” he argued, adding that the companies often end up paying foreign workers much less than minimum wage through questionable business practices. “What they’re going to do is yes, his paycheque will say $20, and then they will claw back the cost of transportation, the cost of accommodation, the cost of food, the cost of his clothes and his hard hat.”
In a statement from Oct. 16, the Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training dismissed the claim that the hiring process was rigged and said that the wages were consistent with coal mining jobs in Alberta.