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Canada is betting big on higher coal exports to China.

JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

A group of labour unions has written to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and B.C. Premier Christy Clark to raise concerns about a pending influx of temporary foreign workers to the B.C. mining sector. The unions say Canadian workers could do the jobs for which foreign workers are being hired.

"We believe this mass importation of labour is completely unnecessary and is simply a strategy to employ lower-paid workers who are compliant with the culture of coal mining in China," said the October 15 letter from the Bargaining Council of B.C. Building Trades Unions, which represents 15 unions whose members include plumbers, sheet metal workers and others involved in the construction industry.

"The coal mining in that country is patently unsafe and the industry there shows little regard for the life, health and well being of the workers in that country."

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The letter comes as HD Mining International Ltd. – the Vancouver-based mining company that is developing the Murray River coal project near Tumbler Ridge – has obtained permission to bring 200 workers to B.C. under the federally administered Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

HD Mining will be required to comply with all federal and provincial labour regulations when it comes to temporary foreign workers "and we will do so willingly," said Jody Shimkus, vice-president of regulatory affairs with the company.

Concerning wages, Ms. Shimkus said the rules for the program require foreign workers to be paid at a level that would be "comparable" to local workers.

The first dozen or so Chinese workers are likely to arrive in B.C. in the next few weeks.

The program allows employers to hire foreign workers on a temporary basis when Canadians and permanent residents are not available. Foreign workers are covered by federal and provincial labour laws, but language barriers and isolation can make them vulnerable to exploitation.

HD's partner in Murray River is Canadian Dehua International, a Chinese-backed company that is working on three other proposed coal projects in the province that could also involve hundreds of foreign workers.

The prospect that mining companies might want to hire foreign workers has been known since at least 2007, when Canadian Dehua filed a project description for its proposed Gething project that said as many as 400 foreign workers would likely be needed to build the mine.

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Ms. Clark did not mention foreign workers in an official announcement last November, when she trumpeted Chinese investments in B.C.'s mining sector – including projects involving Canadian Dehua – that would "eventually create over 6,700 jobs."

Canada lacks workers who have experience in the 'longwall' type of mining that will be used at Murray River and other coal mines Canadian Dehua is developing, chief executive officer John Cavanagh said on Monday.

"There are only two underground coal mines in Canada – and both of them use a technology called 'room and pillar,' " Mr. Cavanagh said. 'It's a little bit like saying while somebody's a pilot – but one's flying a helicopter and the other person is flying a jet.

"There are two entirely different types of technologies and as such they need different types of workers."

Workers could be trained in the longwall system, but that requires an operating mine – and an operating mine requires experienced workers to get it up and running, Mr. Cavanagh said.

Labour unions have challenged that rationale for hiring foreign workers, saying B.C. workers could be trained to handle new systems and equipment.

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