A court case that got under way on Wednesday is expected to shed light on how a Canadian company obtained work permits for about 200 Chinese workers for a B.C. coal mine.
The federal government has already said it is not satisfied with the process that gave a green light to bring the workers to B.C., and has promised to review the program through which they were hired.
In announcing the review of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program on Nov. 8, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said litigation "could impede this work and lead to court battles rather than a genuine fix."
The two unions that brought the case are pressing for an injunction that would stop any more workers from coming to the Murray River coal mine near Tumbler Ridge – about a dozen recently arrived – until there has been a judicial review of how they were hired.
In Federal Court on Wednesday, Judge Douglas Campell gave the parties until Friday to come up with arguments and information about standing in the case.
"Once he establishes if we are allowed to even be discussing this with the courts, then I think he's concerned enough to make sure that the company and the government take a look at making sure that there is not an influx of workers in the interim until all of the decisions that have been put to the HRSDC have been decided," Lee Loftus, president of BC Building Trades said outside of court.
Lawyers for the federal government and the unions were scheduled to hold a case-management conference in Vancouver on Wednesday.
The possibility of potentially hundreds of foreign employees coming to work in B.C. coal mines has been known since at least 2007, when Canadian Dehua International Mines Group Inc. filed a project description for a proposed mine that said it would likely need to hire Chinese workers.
Vancouver-based Canadian Dehua is a partner in HD Mining, the B.C. company that is developing the Murray River mine. The project would be an underground operation using "longwall" mining methods, which remove deposits in long strips. Canada has only a handful of underground coal operations, none of which use longwall mining, although the technique is common in the United States.
HD has said it needs to hire foreign workers because it could not find enough skilled underground coal miners for the project at home, a rationale disputed by labour groups.
Controversy erupted this fall after reports that the first workers were about to arrive.
Both the companies involved in the project and the provincial government could have done more to build a domestic work force in the years since Canadian Dehua flagged its interest in B.C.'s coal deposits, says the head of a first nations group whose traditional territory is ringed by coal claims.
"They have had [years] to get the ball rolling on this," Roland Willson, chief of the West Moberly First Nations, said in a recent interview.
As an example, Mr. Willson cites a recent college project – backed in part by Peace River Coal, the B.C. subsidiary of London-based mining conglomerate Anglo American – that has trained more than 30 B.C. residents, including 14 West Moberly members, to be entry-level workers. They are now employed in the mining sector.
The recent uproar over temporary foreign workers in B.C. mirrors controversies in Australia, where the immigration department is investigating claims that an iron ore project paid Chinese workers half of what it paid its Australian employees.
A spokesman for Australia's immigration department said "the department has investigated Sino Iron Ore and the matter is ongoing."
Under Australian regulations, employers are required to provide migrant workers with "equivalent terms and conditions" to Australians performing the same job in the same workplace.
A spokesman for Citic Pacific – the company behind the massive iron ore project – said it had no comment on the allegations.