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Mining company faces legal challenge

A Chinese-owned mining firm behind a proposed underground coal project in northern British Columbia is facing yet another union legal challenge over its use of temporary foreign workers.

HD Mining has been fending off controversy since it was revealed last year that it planned to use up to 201 temporary foreign workers from China at its Murray River project, near Tumbler Ridge, B.C.

The plan prompted federal politicians to suggest the permits shouldn't have been granted and led to a legal challenge from two unions, which ultimately ended in the company's favour.

Now, the United Steelworkers union is asking the B.C. Supreme Court to revoke the company's mining exploration permit, arguing the province's chief inspector of mines was wrong to grant the permit without adequately addressing concerns the workers would not be fluent in English.

The United Steelworkers filed a petition with the court earlier this week, alleging documents obtained by the union suggest provincial officials were aware that allowing the mine to use workers who didn't speak English would pose a potential safety risk, but granted the permit anyway.

"No part of that application addresses the ability of Mandarin-speaking workers, who have minimal facility of the English language, to work safely at the Murray River project," says the document, filed on Dec. 16.

"Nor does the application address the projected intermingling of English speaking employees with employees who predominantly speak Mandarin."

The court document, which contain unproven allegations, names the provincial Ministry of Energy and Mines; the chief inspector of mines, which falls under the ministry; and HD Mining.

The Ministry of Energy and Mines declined to comment and instead referred questions about the case to the Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training. A spokesperson for the Jobs Ministry was not immediately available for comment.

HD Mining didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The union's petition deals with temporary foreign worker applications by HD Mining and a related company, Canadian Dehua, which previously sought applications for 97 foreign workers at the site. Canadian Dehua has a 40 per cent ownership stake in HD Mining.

Canadian Dehua's applications to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada for 97 labour market opinions — the document required to obtain a temporary foreign worker permit — were denied in 2011 over the workers' lack of English skills, the union's document says.

HD Mining submitted its own applications for 201 labour market opinions in the spring of 2012.

The union's petition says emails and other internal documents indicate the companies informed provincial and federal officials early on that the Chinese workers would require English training.

Officials with the provincial Jobs Ministry, Citizenship and Immigration Canada and the company had numerous email exchanges and meetings discussing the language issue, according to the union's petition.

In January 2012, Canadian Dehua sent B.C.'s chief inspector of mines, Al Hoffman, an email titled "Solution Package for the English Language Issue," though the petition doesn't spell out the contents of the email.

Hoffman responded, the union's petition says, with a list of requirements and expectations for the safe operation of the mine. Again, the petition does not say what those requirements were.

In March 2012, HD Mining submitted its applications for labour market opinions. On the cover letters for those applications, the company acknowledged the language issue and assured the federal government that B.C.'s chief inspector of mines "supported HD Mining's proposal to institute certain safeguards," the union's petition says.

The union argues in its petition that the chief inspector of mines did not take adequate steps to ensure the workers would be safe in light of their lack of English skills.

It also says the chief inspector of mines essentially left it up to the federal government to sort out the language concerns.

In an interview, union spokesman Stephen Hunt said he hopes the lawsuit leads to more scrutiny of the temporary foreign worker program.

"Canadians, generally, are not happy with what's going on with temporary foreign workers," said Hunt.

Two other unions, the International Union of Operating Engineers and the Construction and Specialized Workers Union, asked the Federal Court last year to overturn the company's labour market opinions.

The unions argued the federal government was wrong to conclude there were no Canadians available to fill the positions at the mine.

The company argued it needed to bring in foreign workers because Canadian miners aren't trained on the specialized form of mining, known as long-wall mining, that will be used to extract the coal.

In May of this year, the Federal Court dismissed the unions' case, giving the company green light to proceed.

The mine is still in the early stages of seeking regulatory approval, but it currently has a permit for exploration and sampling work.

The Canadian Press


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