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Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training and Minister Responsible for Labour: Yesterday: Pat Bell, Today: Pat Bell

B.C. will work with Ottawa to investigate allegations of illegal recruiting practices targeting Chinese workers for mining jobs in Canada, says provincial Jobs Minister Pat Bell.

"We always work with our federal partners on anything of this nature," Mr. Bell said on Tuesday, a day after the province confirmed it would investigate allegations that would-be job applicants in China have been told they would have to pay thousands of dollars to secure mining jobs in Canada.

The allegations, first reported in the Tyee online newspaper, come amid a clamour over foreign miners in B.C., and as the first of up to 200 Chinese miners approved to work at the Murray River coal project are expected to arrive in Tumbler Ridge in coming weeks.

According to the Tyee report, a reporter posing as a Chinese miner was told by recruiting agencies that fees amounting to $10,000 or more were required to land mining jobs in Canada.

Such fees would be illegal under B.C.'s Employment Standards Act. Other provinces also prohibit agencies from charging recruiting fees to foreign workers.

HD Mining, the Vancouver company developing the Murray River project, does not use recruitment agencies, spokeswoman Jody Shimkus said.

And the 200 workers for whom HD has obtained work permits are currently employed by Huiyong Holdings, one of the Chinese groups that has a stake in HD, she added.

"These [200 temporary foreign workers] are employees of the parent company – there is no middleman being used," Ms. Shimkus said.

HD sought and obtained permits for those 200 workers under Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which allows employers to hire workers from other countries to fill pressing labour shortages.

HD and Canadian Dehua – which holds a minority stake in HD and is pursuing three other coal projects in B.C. – have said there is a shortage of underground coal miners in Canada.

The proposed Murray River project would use the "longwall" mining technique, a highly mechanized approach that involves mining coal in long strips, rather than the "room-and-pillar" method used at Canada's two existing underground coal mines.

B.C. labour groups have decried the hiring of foreign workers, saying more effort should have gone into recruiting and training local employees, and have suggested that Chinese miners will be paid lower wages than Canadian workers.

HD Mining advertised extensively in Canada for potential employees, Ms. Shimkus said. Under the TFW program, HD is required to pay wages comparable to the prevailing wage rates for Canadian workers in the sector.

"We have to demonstrate to Service Canada that we are advertising within those ranges," she said, citing an advertisement for an underground electrician that specified a wage rate of $28 to $38 an hour.

In defending the use of temporary foreign workers, the B.C. government has said the work being done is exploration work that will determine whether the mine can go ahead – and will, in the long run, help generate potentially hundreds more jobs for Canadian residents.

"The hiring of 201 workers, in a very specific short-term job for a period of eight to ten months, does not seem an unreasonable thing to do," Mr. Bell said.

The number of Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada has climbed over the past decade as employers turned to foreign workers to fill jobs in sectors including restaurants, agriculture and food processing.

One such employer was Spray Lake Sawmills of Cochrane, Alta.

Seventeen temporary foreign workers hired over the past few years helped Spray Lake get through an unprecedented labour crunch, but at this point, the company does not plan to extend its use of the program, said HR manager Howard Pruden.

"People from Nova Scotia, just over the phone, a Skype interview, they hop in the car and throw their suitcase in and they're here on our doorstep a week later," Mr. Pruden said. "These guys are working down east making 12 bucks an hour – they hear we're paying 18 to 20 bucks an hour to start – they're pretty eager to come out."

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