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A decline portal under construction at the Murray River project.

When 60 Chinese workers arrive for work later this week at a British Columbia coal mine, they will be getting a lot more than they bargained for.

Hired by HD Mining International to work the Murray River coal project in Tumbler Ridge, B.C., the miners will walk squarely into a mushrooming debate about the use of temporary foreign workers in an industry running a massive labour deficit as Canada's work force ages and new mines come on stream.

The workers will join 17 already here. All of them are skilled in the longwall coal mining method, and come to Canada directly from the coal operations of Huiyong Holding, one of two Chinese companies that own HD Mining. The other is Canadian Dehua International Mines Group Inc.

Local unions want Ottawa to reverse a decision to allow HD to hire up to 201 workers from China under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. They say HD did not make sufficient efforts to hire locally before going abroad, that the company made Mandarin a requirement and advertised wages below the industry norm.

Some question whether HD pushed the limits of the program in hiring so many workers for one operation, potentially creating the first Canadian mine that is not operated in either French or English. They also question whether advertised wages were truly competitive.

"Like other companies that utilize the foreign workers' program, we realized following an extensive recruitment effort that the skilled workers we required were not available. We made every effort to recruit that skill set," HD spokeswoman Jody Shimkus said Monday.

She said the company offered jobs at competitive rates, and that Mandarin was not a requirement. HD interviewed some 300 applicants in Canada before going overseas to find workers familiar with longwall mining, a method not common in Canada that is akin to shaving a coal face with a long shear so that it falls onto a conveyor belt.

"We met and exceeded all of the requirements of the temporary foreign worker program, including the submission of a training and transition package to move us to a Canadian work force over time," said Ms. Shimkus.

Critics say it's implausible that Canada, a country rich with mining, could not provide a single qualified candidate for Murray River. "This is not believable or acceptable," said Brian Cochrane, a business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers, a major supplier of skilled workers to Canadian mine sites, in a blog post on the union's website Tuesday.

Mining companies are increasingly global by nature and workers typically go where the projects are. Canadian firms are not strangers to using the Temporary Foreign Worker Program on a small scale to cover hard-to-fill positions. Grande Cache Coal, based in Alberta, has hired miners from South Africa for its operation.

Teck Resources Ltd., Canada's largest diversified miner and one of the world's chief exporters of coking coal, says that about 1 per cent of its Canadian work force comes from outside of the country, from such places as Australia, Jamaica, the United Kingdom, Venezuela, the Philippines and the United States.

"In the HD case, I think the reason it is creating so many headlines is just the nature of that one particular operation and how the entire mine seems to be staffed with foreign workers, it's not for a particular job or for a particular occupation, it's for the entire mine," said Ryan Montpellier, executive director of the Mining Industry Human Resources Council (MiHR), not commenting either way on the merits of HD's case.

In 2011, mining and oil and gas extraction as an industry sector hired 3,420 workers, or about 2 per cent of the 151,520 in the program. By contrast, the accommodation and food services sector hired 29,405 workers last year.

Murray River may be but the first in a wave as miners struggle to staff mines. MiHR forecasts the Canadian mining industry needs 140,000 new workers over the next decade. It is estimated that in B.C. as many as 16,700 jobs will open up in the sector over that period as the work force ages and amid competition from the oil sands sector for skilled tradespeople, engineers and managers.

"It sort of creates this perfect storm where you have this growing industry, an ageing workforce and real recruitment challenges to attract, recruit and retain youth," said Mr. Montpellier

As the HD Mining debate has played out, voices have been raised on both sides. Some observers have suggested the campaign challenging the Chinese workers has racist undertones, a suggestion adamantly denied by the unions that have brought the case.

HD Mining expects to spend about $300-million to build Murray River, a mine that will produce 6 million tonnes of steel-making coal a year, or about a third of current provincial output, once it is at full production.