Unions have right to challenge mine's temporary foreign worker permits: judge

VANCOUVER – The Federal Court will hear a challenge brought by two unions of a federal government decision to grant temporary foreign work permits for a northern B.C. coal mine.

The unions are seeking a judicial review of approximately 200 temporary foreign worker permits granted to HD Mining International for its Murray River mine near Tumbler Ridge, B.C.

Lawyers for the company and the federal Immigration and Human Resources departments sought to have the application dismissed.

Judge Douglas Campbell declined, noting in his decision Thursday there is a public interest in the case.

“I note that presently there is almost no knowledge of the contents of the (labour market opinions) in question, nor is there a method in the present circumstances by which their production can be ordered without granting the applicants standing in these proceedings,” Campbell wrote.

The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 115 and the Construction and Specialized Workers Union Local 1611 say the company offered wages that were $10 to $17 an hour lower than the going rates at similar mines, and without benefits.

They claim the mine also had advertisements that required workers speak Mandarin — a claim the company denies.

The unions want to see the labour market opinions rendered by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. The opinions, which are intended to determine whether there’s a labour shortage in a particular job, formed the basis for the successful permit applications. The Crown opposed providing those documents, even on a confidential basis.

“I don’t know why they were fighting us so hard and why they wouldn’t give us the documents earlier,” said Charles Gordon, the lawyer for the unions.

“If the process was followed, as the companies have claimed, then it’s hard to see what harm there could be from producing the documents when we asked for them. And if the process was followed properly, this whole thing would disappear.”

Brian Cochrane, business manager of the Operating Engineers union, said Thursday’s victory is only the first step.

“We’ve just hit first base today and now it’s time to move on and hopefully we get the production of documents necessary,” he said outside court.

Seventeen workers have already arrived and another 60 workers are scheduled to come in mid-December. The judge urged the parties to come to some agreement in place of an injunction from the court against the arrivals next month.

The United Steelworkers Union filed a separate complaint Thursday with the provincial mines ministry and the mine inspector over the safety conditions facing the workers at the mine.

In a letter to Mines Minister Rich Coleman, the union said the Chinese workers hired by HD Mining don’t speak English well enough to understand and comply with hundreds of pages worth of health and safety rules.

Nor do they understand their rights in Canada, they said.

“Inserting a foreign national without English language fluency into such a maze of overlapping and precise safety requirements is a recipe for disaster,” the letter said.

The union asked the minister to ensure English language competency and verify the workers’ training and skills. Until that is done, they want the province to suspend work at the mine.

A ministry spokesperson said no work has begun at the mine, which is still under environmental assessment and has not yet received regulatory approval.

“Work must begin before the ministry can inspect the site to determine compliance under the act,” the spokesperson said in an email response to questions.

The company is required to follow all health and safety standards, they said.

HD Mining is a partnership between China-based Huiyong Holding Group, which owns a 55 per cent stake, and Canadian Dehua International Mines Group Inc.

The federal minister of Human Resources and Skills Development, Diane Finley, cited the B.C. mine in announcing a review of the entire temporary foreign worker process earlier this month.

The B.C. Employment Standards Branch is also investigating allegations that recruiters in China demanded illegal fees from the temporary workers — allegations HD Mining has denied.