HD Mining says it would be willing to consult labour unions before applying to hire any more foreign workers for its B.C. coal project – but only if the unions drop a lawsuit against the company and allow it to finish a bulk sampling program with the aid of 201 foreign workers who have been previously approved to work at the site.
"While our company is fully prepared to continue defending this litigation, and while we believe the court will ultimately conclude our approvals were validly issued under the existing law and policy, we are prepared to engage in a dialogue with the unions if there is a mutual interest in doing so," HD Mining chairman Penggui Yan said in an open letter, dated Feb. 7, to two B.C. unions.
Mr. Yan outlined four conditions – including that the lawsuit would have to be dropped – for such dialogue to occur.
HD Mining, a Vancouver-based company backed by Chinese interests, obtained approvals through the federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program to bring up to 201 workers from China for its Murray River project near Tumbler Ridge.
The unions became aware of the letter through the press and do not see it as a reason to drop the legal action, International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) business manager Brian Cochrane said Thursday.
"I think they have missed the entire point of this whole exercise," Mr. Cochrane said, adding that the unions believe the process that allowed HD Mining to hire the 201 foreign workers is fundamentally flawed.
"What they [HD Mining] are saying is, 'Let us continue to be in violation…. why don't you turn your back on the fact that we weren't in compliance in the program – and here's a number of conditions and maybe we can sit down and have a conversation.' "
HD Mining says it was unable to hire qualified workers in Canada for its project. If developed, the $300-million mine would be an underground operation using the longwall mining method, which is not currently used in Canadian coal mines.
Last November, B.C. locals of two unions – the IUOE and the Construction and Specialized Workers' Union – filed a court action aiming to have the 201 workers' permits revoked. The unions say the company didn't do enough to hire Canadians and advertised jobs at less than going rates – allegations the company disputes.
In court, the two sides have wrangled over document disclosure, most recently over the resumés of Canadians who applied for – but didn't get – jobs at the Murray River project. In a court document filed this month, the unions said those resumés showed a large number of qualified Canadian applicants for jobs for which HD Mining sought, and obtained, approval to hire foreign workers.
HD Mining's letter to the unions comes after provincial Jobs Minister Pat Bell said there were problems with the temporary foreign worker program. In an interview aired Wednesday on CKNW radio, Mr. Bell conceded there were problems with the program, but denied that he was backing away from previously stated support of HD Mining and its proposed use of temporary foreign workers.
"If you go back and actually look at my comments over the last number of weeks, you'll see that really I have said we need to regain confidence in the temporary foreign worker program, that's been lost, I accept that," Mr. Bell told the radio station. "I think Minister Finley reviewing the program is absolutely appropriate – we'd like to engage in that review. Because ultimately going forward, temporary foreign workers will be a reality in British Columbia."
Last November, federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said she was "not satisfied with what we have learned about the process that led to permission for hundreds of foreign workers to gain jobs at the Dehua Mines subsidiary in B.C., in particular, we are not satisfied that sufficient efforts were made to recruit or train Canadians interested in these jobs."
In an e-mailed statement Thursday, Mr. Bell said, "I want to be clear that I do not intend to, nor have I at any point, cast judgment in any way on the actions of HD Mining – it would be inappropriate as the matter is currently before the courts. I can say, however, that we understand that British Columbians have lost faith in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and commend the Federal Government, as we did some months ago, for taking the necessary steps to review it."
HD Mining is partly owned by a company called Canadian Dehua, which has several other coal projects in B.C.
A spokeswoman for Ms. Finley's office said on Thursday there was no update on a review of the program.
In October, Mr. Bell's ministry issued two bulletins on "myths and facts on temporary foreign workers," in which the government addressed critics' claims, including that temporary foreign workers are taking the long-term jobs of Canadians.
In fact, an Oct. 24 bulletin said the government is committed to "making sure that if these mines are found to be viable, British Columbians will be able to do the jobs that will be created in northeastern B.C."