A dispute over Chinese workers at a B.C. coal mine enters its final round this week with a high-stakes judicial review.
Labour groups that brought the case are hoping for a decision that will not only quash work permits for 201 workers approved to come to HD Mining's Murray River project near Tumbler Ridge, but also trigger changes in Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker Program – through which hundreds of thousands of workers come to the country each year.
"The outcome of this case will have a fundamental impact on how the Temporary Foreign Worker Program is going to get utilized and what recommendations the government is going to have," Brian Cochrane, spokesman for Local 115 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, said Monday. The IUOE, along with Local 1611 of the Construction and Specialized Workers' Union, launched the court case last November.
"If we are successful, I think that would put the government in a position of having to act fairly quickly," Mr. Cochrane said.
Last November, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said the government would review the program. It came under renewed fire over the weekend as a result of allegations relating to RBC hiring foreign workers who displaced Canadian employees. Ottawa is now investigating that case.
Vancouver-based HD Mining, meanwhile, says it has met or exceeded all requirements for hiring foreign workers and that it has already pumped $50-million into a project now delayed by litigation. The company also suggests the case could affect international investment.
"HD Mining is an innocent party that played by the rules, and now finds itself caught up in highly political litigation and media war between organized labour and the federal government," HD Mining's lawyers said in an April 3 court submission. "The case raises important questions about the role of courts on judicial review, the potential for the court process to be manipulated for political gain and ultimately for international investor confidence in Canada."
HD Mining is headquartered in Vancouver and backed by Chinese interests.
The court battle began last November, when the labour groups applied for a judicial review of federal government decisions that cleared the way for 201 foreign workers to come to the Murray River mine. Since then, lawyers for both sides have sparred over several issues, including whether the unions had standing to bring the case – a judge ruled they did – and what documents HD Mining had to disclose.
HD Mining says it was unable to hire experienced domestic miners for its operation, which the company says would utilize a longwall mining method not currently used in Canada. The unions maintain the company didn't do enough to hire Canadian workers and has also criticized a transition plan for taking too long to hire and train a local work force.
The workers were scheduled to arrive beginning last fall. About 16 came to Tumbler Ridge before being sent back to China in January, with HD Mining citing the uncertainty resulting from the litigation.
The judicial review is expected to run until Friday, with a decision expected in subsequent weeks.