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Premier Doug Ford, accompanied by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, answers questions from the media at the Stellantis Research and Development Centre in Windsor, Ontario on May 2, 2022.REBECCA COOK/Reuters

Ontario has asked the federal government to detail just how many foreign workers it will allow at the massive electric-vehicle battery plant being built in Windsor, Ont. – with up to $15-billion in taxpayer subsidies – after reports that 1,600 people from overseas would be working at the site.

Queen’s Park and Ottawa secured the plant, a project by global car giant Stellantis NV and South Korean battery maker LG Energy Solution Ltd., with up to $10-billion in federal subsidies and up to $5-billion from the province. The two governments had to dramatically sweeten their offer to keep the joint venture, and its 2,500 promised jobs, in Canada earlier this year.

But controversy erupted after Windsor Police posted on social media last week that they expected 1,600 South Korean workers to arrive in the city next year, a figure apparently gleaned from South Korean diplomatic staff visiting the city for discussions about the factory.

Union leaders have been raising alarms, saying the subsidies should be supporting Canadian unionized jobs. In August, The Windsor Star quoted an official with the local economic development agency Invest WindsorEssex saying that LG expects 600 to 1,000 foreign workers will come to set up the plant’s equipment, with another 300 to 500 needed to the run the facility.

However, federal officials have said that so far, only one foreign worker has been approved for the new battery plant.

On Tuesday, Ontario Labour Minister David Piccini and Economic Development Minister Vic Fedeli released a letter calling on their counterparts in Ottawa to disclose the actual number of foreign workers in Ontario currently on the site, known as NextStar, and to reveal how many will be arriving under federal programs.

The letter says the two Ontario ministers “are extremely concerned about reports of international workers linked to the NextStar project hired under the federal work permitting system.”

MPs, unions raise alarm over Windsor EV battery plant’s plan to bring in foreign workers

Addressed to federal Employment Minister Randy Boissonnault and federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan, the letter asks Ottawa to release the labour market impact assessment that Ottawa provided to NextStar. These assessments are required to show that Canadian workers are not available before permission is granted to potentially hire foreign workers.

Mr. Piccini and Mr. Fedeli acknowledge that a “select number” of specialized foreign workers would be needed to build the new state-of-the-art facility. But they say the number must be limited to “situations where it is absolutely necessary.”

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Mr. Piccini said it was “regrettable” that the province did not have more “clarity from the federal government” on the EV battery plant. Mr. Fedeli said he accepted that a “very small number” of South Koreans would be needed to set up the new facility – but that he had never been told as many 1,600 would be brought in.

Mr. Boissonnault said his department has issued only one labour market impact assessment, for just one job posting for the plant, under the federal process that allows for a temporary foreign worker to be hired if no qualified Canadian can be found. He also said “there is no justification that we can see” for the 1,600 estimate.

Federal Immigration Minister Marc Miller told reporters that some other workers can come and go on visas under the terms of Canada’s free-trade deal with South Korea. But he said fewer than 100 people have come into the country this way, to train staff at the site.

François-Philippe Champagne, the federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, said he spoke with the chief executive of Stellantis in the U.S. and asked to him to “make sure that we respect not only the letter but also the spirit of our contract with the company, which is to maximize the number of opportunities for Canadians.”

Ontario Opposition NDP Leader Marit Stiles said it was concerning that the Ontario government seems completely in the dark as to whether the fine print for its multibillion-dollar subsidy deal included any guarantees for Ontario jobs.

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