A federal court judge has granted court standing to two labour unions in a case involving temporary foreign workers, giving them a green light to challenge federal decisions that allowed an estimated 200 Chinese workers to be hired for jobs at a British Columbia coal mine.
"This [decision] means that trade unions have public interest standing in bringing these kinds of issues forward," Charles Gordon, a lawyer representing the two trade unions, said outside court on Thursday.
Earlier this month, the unions applied for a judicial review of federal government decisions that cleared the way for Vancouver-based HD Mining to bring at least 200 Chinese mine workers to the Murray River coal project near Tumbler Ridge.
The federal government and HD Mining challenged the unions' right to bring the case. But in a decision released Thursday, Justice Douglas Campell ruled the unions had public interest standing, saying individual workers would find it costly to pursue a court challenge.
He also noted the important issues raised in the case.
"At the centre of the present challenge is the serious and important issue of the legality of actions of government officials tasked with making assessments that concern both human resources and immigration matters in Canada," Judge Campbell wrote.
The unions argue that the federal government's decision to grant favourable Labour Market Opinions to the company was flawed.
Under Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker program, employers must apply for a Labour Market Opinion before they can can hire from abroad. As part of the process, employers have to show what efforts they made to hire Canadian citizens and that wages offered were in line with prevailing local wage rates.
The unions – Local 1611 of the Construction and Specialized Workers' Union and Local 115 of the International Union of Operating Engineers – argued in court that HD Mining offered wages that were up to $17 an hour lower than those being paid for similar jobs nearby.
HD Mining, a private company backed by Chinese interests, is developing the Murray River project, which would be an underground coal-mining operation that would supply steel-making coal to Asian markets.
The company has said it requires workers with specific skills that are not widely available in the Canadian work force. Nearly 20 workers are already in Tumbler Ridge, and another 60 are scheduled to arrive next month.
In a related development, the United Steelworkers Union on Wednesday filed a complaint with the provincial mines ministry alleging violations of the BC Mines Act and asking the ministry to order a suspension of work at the mine. The USW maintains that foreign workers don't have sufficient language skills to comply with safety regulations.
In an e-mail, a ministry spokesman said mine work must begin before the ministry can inspect the site to determine compliance. Once work begins, the company would be required to comply with all provincial regulations, the spokesman added.
Federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said earlier this month that she was not satisfied with the process that resulted in permission for foreign workers to come to the B.C. mining project, and that the Temporary Foreign Worker Program would be reviewed.