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Chunks of coal on the beach around Union Bay, B.C.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Two labour unions are asking a federal court to overturn temporary work permits issued to Chinese workers at a coal mine in northern British Columbia, arguing that there are unemployed Canadians who could fill the jobs.

Permits have been granted under the federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program to 200 Chinese workers to conduct exploration work at HD Mining International Ltd.'s Murray River coal mine near Tumbler Ridge, B.C.

The company has said it was not able to find workers in Canada with the specialized skills necessary.

But the court action filed by the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 115 and the Construction and Specialized Workers Union Local 1611 maintains that is not the case.

"There is no evidence of a labour shortage nor is there an absence of suitable Canadian citizens or permanent residents for the jobs," said the application.

It says HD Mining received 300 applications from Canadian citizens or permanent residents of Canada to work at the underground coal mine "despite the fact that HD Mining did not advertise widely and imposed unreasonable and unnecessary requirements on Canadian applicants."

Those requirements have not been imposed on the Chinese workers, the court documents allege. The documents also accuse the company of paying wages to the Chinese workers that are about $10 an hour below the prevailing wages in the industry in Canada, and no benefits.

"Local 115 has members who are qualified and available to perform the type of work which is involved with bulk sampling who are presently unemployed or underemployed and who would be willing to work at the new mine," Brian Cochrane, business manager of the operating engineers, said in an affidavit filed with the court.

Mr. Cochrane says 474 miners are out of work in B.C., more than 100 of them in the northeastern corner of the province.

The unions say the approval of the Murray River workers was done in violation of the federal regulations, which stipulate that foreign workers can only be used in situations where a labour shortage exists.

They want the court to declare the permits invalid, and quash the decision to issue them. The application also seeks an order preventing Human Resources and Skills Development Canada and Citizenship and Immigration from issuing any further offers of employment or permits to HD Mining until the court matter is resolved.

A spokesperson for HD Mining was not immediately available for comment. The company is a partnership between China-based Huiyong Holding Group, which owns a 55 per cent stake in the mine, and Canadian Dehua International Mines Group Inc.

The company has said before that the Murray River mine uses a long-wall technique not used at any other operation in Canada and, therefore, there are no workers with the skills needed for the project.

In long-wall mining, coal is extracted along a wall in large blocks and then carried out on a conveyor belt. The majority of underground mines in North America use the room-and-pillar method, in which rooms are carved out of the coal bed.

The unions say there is very little training required for long-wall mining.

While the Federal Court decides if it will hear the case, the Murray River project continues through the environmental assessment phase. The company has been allowed to continue with preliminary sampling and the temporary workers have arrived from China and started with that work.

No one from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada was immediately available for comment. Human Resources had already announced last week that it is reviewing whether the permit applications met federal requirements. The department is responsible for assessing the labour market with respect to temporary foreign workers.

There have also been allegations that recruiters in China demanded illegal fees from the temporary workers, which HD Mining has denied. The B.C. Employment Standards Branch is investigating those allegations.

The Murray River project is just one of 29 coal exploration or development projects listed by the province last year in B.C., where coal is making a comeback. Three involve Dehua.

In 1999, 25 million tonnes of coal produced in B.C. was worth $797-million.

The figure jumped dramatically 12 years later when 27 million tonnes put $5.7-billion in provincial coffers.

There are 11 coal mines operating in province, according to the Mines Ministry.