Plans for a flagship electric-vehicle battery plant being built in Windsor, Ont., with up to $15-billion in subsidies, have sparked concerns that scores of jobs could go to temporary foreign workers, cutting into promised employment for Canadians.
The plant, a joint venture between global auto giant Stellantis and South Korean battery maker LG Energy Solution, is the largest investment in the history of Canada’s auto sector.
Expected to open next year, the NextStar factory was touted to create 2,500 jobs in Windsor and the surrounding areas. It was widely welcomed by unions when it was first announced.
But now, unions, members of Parliament and construction trade groups are ringing alarm bells after a Korean company was brought in to recruit for jobs, and the federal government granted permission to bring in a temporary foreign worker to fill an administrative role, on the grounds that a Canadian could not be found.
Opposition MPs suspect that large numbers of foreign workers will be brought in to construct and staff the EV factory, which is heavily subsidized by both the federal and Ontario governments.
On Sunday, Conservative industry critic Rick Perkins wrote to Joël Lightbound, chair of the House of Commons industry and technology committee, asking for an emergency meeting to discuss the hiring of temporary workers at the NextStar plant.
Windsor New Democratic Party MP Brian Masse last week contacted Employment Minister Randy Boissonnault to raise concerns that local workers with experience in assembly work and the automotive industry could be sidelined, and that there could be a shortage of housing in the area for foreign workers.
Mr. Masse said housing is already in short supply for local people, while the cost of accommodation “has been skyrocketing.”
“We are doing this [plant] with a massive amount of subsidies,” he said. “There’s no point if you don’t use your own labour.”
LG Energy Solution has met with developers and investors in Windsor to discuss the housing needs of the incoming Korean work force in the area, including for rentals.
Invest WindsorEssex, which held the meeting in August, declined to comment on the discussions. But afterward, Joe Goncalves, its vice-president of investment attraction and strategic initiatives, told the Windsor Star that LG is expecting from 600 to 1,000 workers will come to set up the equipment; LG will bring another 300 to 500 people to run the facility.
He said the Korean company wanted to let Windsor know the types of housing incoming workers would require.
Danies Lee, CEO of NextStar Energy, told The Globe and Mail that installing the equipment at the plant requires staff from abroad with specialist skills.
“The equipment installation phase of the project requires additional temporary specialized global supplier staff who have proprietary knowledge and specialized expertise that is critical to the successful construction and launch of Canada’s first large-scale battery-manufacturing facility,” Mr. Lee told The Globe.
He said the company is “fully committed to hiring Canadians to fill more than 2,500 full-time positions at the Windsor battery facility and are engaging up to an additional 2,300 tradespeople locally and throughout the province” to help with construction and equipment installation.
Jeil, a Korean packaging company known for precision machinery transportation and installation with a long-term partnership with LG, has set up a corporation in Canada to carry out installation and assembly for NextStar.
Jeil is advertising for an Operations Manager–Administrative Services. To fill the role, Mr. Boissonnault’s department has approved a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA), which allows a company to bring in a foreign worker to fill a post if they can prove there are no Canadians available.
Theresa Lee, human-resources manager at Jeil Special, which is recruiting for the plant, said Korean workers with experience in which tools and equipment to use, can share their knowledge with Canadian employees, and train them.
She said it is currently trying to hire local Canadian workers. “And since battery equipment is something new in Canada, it is true that we have some difficulties finding a candidate with the experience that we are looking for.
“Our workers are all from South Korea and they are willing to train and share their knowledge to the locals by working side by side,” she said. “We have done this in other countries like Poland, Hungary, Vietnam and Sweden.”
She added that LG workers, experienced in installation and assembly, are aware “which part is fragile/delicate and they know what tools and equipment to use efficiently.”
Unions fear that Ottawa will also grant LMIAs to allow foreign workers to take construction jobs expected to go to Canadians.
“Canada’s Building Trades Unions has grave concerns if there are temporary foreign workers executing the work when we have job-ready Canadian construction workers available in the Windsor area,” said Sean Strickland, CBTU executive director.
Local construction trades say there are workers in Windsor who are skilled, including in building plants and installing equipment.
Marc Arsenault, of the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario, and Wayne Peterson, executive director at the Construction Employers Co-ordinating Council of Ontario, said in a joint statement that they “full confidence that the requisite labour supply can be secured locally, in the Windsor area.”
Jason Roe, of the Ironworkers Local 700 union, who is also treasurer of the Essex and Kent Building Trades Council, said “we have the local work force ready to supply the labour demand required to build the NextStar Energy Project.”
Audrey Champoux, spokeswoman for Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne, said jobs for Canadians was a priority at new EV plants.
“Our government expects Canadian services, products and work force to be the first to benefit from these projects,” she added.