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Labour unions allege that HD Mining won government approval to bring in as many as 200 Chinese workers, even though it is paying them substantially less than the going rate, with no benefits.

HD Mining announced Monday that 16 temporary foreign workers who had been hired to work on the company's Murray River Coal Project are returning to China, saying a high-profile court case has resulted in too much uncertainty to keep the workers in B.C.

"This was a difficult decision for us, but we are very concerned about the cost and disruption this litigation brought by the unions has caused to the planning of the project," HD Mining spokeswoman Jody Shimkus said in a statement. "We need reasonable certainty before initiating work on our underground bulk sample. We have also decided to delay bringing any additional workers to Tumbler Ridge until we have reliable certainty."

The workers – the first batch of about 200 that had been approved for the project– arrived in Tumbler Ridge in the fall. Another 60 had been expected to come in December but they have not arrived.

HD Mining, a B.C.-based company backed by Chinese interests, had planned to bring Chinese workers to the project after receiving approvals under Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker Program. But two labour groups – B.C. locals of the International Union of Operating Engineers and the Construction and Specialized Workers Union – in November filed a court action challenging the workers' permits.

HD Mining has said it sought foreign workers because it was not able to find the skilled workers it needed in Canada. The labour groups have challenged those claims, saying the company didn't do enough to try to hire Canadian workers and advertised positions at lower than going rates.

That case remains before the Federal Court.

In November, after weeks of controversy about the workers coming to Tumbler Ridge, federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said she would review the temporary foreign worker program.

A bulk sample is a test mining program. HD Mining had received a permit to conduct the work.

In its statement, HD Mining said it would continue to work on employee housing and an environmental assessment process.

"We are very committed to the community of Tumbler Ridge and we have shown our long-term interest by investing $15-million in housing and other local initiatives," HD Mining spokesman Penggui Yan said in the statement. "But we need to be able to relay on the Canadian legal system – and receive fair treatment from governments – when planning and developing projects. In the absence of being able to find Canadians qualified and interested to do this work, we need to know we can rely on the two-year temporary foreign worker authorizations we received."

The $350-million Murray River project is one of several coal initiatives that Chinese interests are pursuing in B.C.

The unions that brought the court case on Monday questioned the company's decision to send the workers back to China, saying the move followed a court order that resulted in HD Mining reluctantly agreeing to turn over résumés of Canadian workers who applied for, but didn't get, jobs at the Murray River project.

"The B.C. Building Trades questions why HD Mining would decide to pull out of its B.C. coal mine project just days after we received the résumés of 300 Canadian workers who were rejected for jobs that were then filled by Chinese temporary foreign workers," Brian Cochrane, business manager of IUOE Local 115, said Monday in a statement.

HD Mining agreed to supply the  résumés after a Federal Court judge ordered Ms. Finley to "further consider" her compliance with a court order to compel disclosure of documents - including  résumés of Canadian workers - the unions had sought in court.

The  résumés have not been publicly released.

HD Mining says it will continue to "vigorously contest" the legal dispute over its hiring of foreign workers.

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