Controversial plans to hire 201 Chinese workers at a proposed mine in northern British Columbia have prompted Ottawa to announce a review of its entire foreign worker program, with the government suggesting the case has revealed deeper problems with a system designed to fill short-term labour shortages.
Human Resources Minister Diane Finley issued a statement Thursday saying the Conservative government isn't satisfied HD Mining Ltd. followed all the rules when it sought foreign worker permits for its proposed mine near Tumbler Ridge, B.C., which she said raises broader questions about the program.
"We are not satisfied with what we have learned about the process that led to permission for hundreds of foreign workers to gain jobs (at the HD Mining site)," the statement said.
"In particular, we are not satisfied that sufficient efforts were made to recruit or train Canadians interested in these jobs. ... It is clear to our government that there are some problems with the temporary foreign worker program."
HD Mining has hired the Chinese workers as part of exploration work at the proposed coal mine site, located about 200 kilometres west of Grande Prairie, Alta. The mine is awaiting an environmental assessment and has not yet been approved.
The company has said there aren't any qualified workers in Canada who can work at the mine, which will be using a method of underground mining that's not in use anywhere else in Canada. But labour unions and other critics have argued there are Canadians willing and able to take those jobs.
Chinese language skills required
A B.C. union has also raised concerns about ads it says were posted to job boards in Canada that listed Mandarin as a language requirement, though the company has insisted applicants weren't required to speak the language.
Finley's statement highlighted the language issue as a particular concern.
"The requirement that applicants have skills in a foreign language does not appear to be linked to a genuine job requirement," Finley's statement said.
HD Mining declined comment on Thursday. The company is a partnership between China-based Huiyong Holding Group, which owns a 55 per cent stake, and Canadian Dehua International Mines Group Inc.
B.C.'s jobs minister, Pat Bell, who has been one of the project's most vocal supporters, did not make himself available for an interview Thursday. He issued a brief statement that ignored Finely's criticisms of the HD Mining project.
Bell said the province is focused on promoting mining development, and it's up to the federal government to address any problems with the temporary foreign worker program.
Bell has repeatedly defended HD Mining's decision to bring in foreign workers, and his ministry has released two fact sheets designed to debunk "myths" surrounding the project.
Those fact sheets said the company followed all of the necessary regulations and repeated the company's denial that Mandarin was job a requirement.
Hiring already under scrutiny
The review of the temporary foreign worker program is the latest to overshadow the coal mine project.
The B.C. government is looking into allegations recruiters in China asked potential applicants for fees, which is illegal under provincial law.
Ottawa is already investigating the foreign worker permits that were granted in this case, though Finley's statement did not say whether there has been any change to those permits. Her office said the permits remain under review.
And two unions have asked the Federal Court to throw out the permits.
It's not clear what the federal government's review of the foreign worker program will look like, or when it might be complete.
The program is designed to fill acute labour shortages.
A company seeking temporary foreign worker permits must prove there is a lack of qualified applicants in Canada and demonstrate it has already attempted to hire or train Canadians.
Labour groups and Opposition politicians have long criticized the program. Complaints range from arguments that a lack of oversight puts migrant workers at risk to allegations that companies use the permits to bring in cheap labour.
Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, said in a statement he welcomes the review, which his organization requested.
"This program is seriously flawed and is open to wide-spread abuse," he said. "The government was forced to lift the curtain on one case involving temporary foreign workers and found that our concerns about the entire program were obviously justified."
Should temporary foreign workers be abolished?
Sinclair said the program is about exploiting temporary workers who can be sent home on a moment's notice, not about immigration and nation building.
While workers can take full-time jobs and stay for four years, they don't have the right to raise families or even complain about safety concerns, he added.
Stephen Hunt of the United Steelworkers union, which has called on the federal government to rescind the permits for the Chinese miners, said the entire temporary foreign worker program should be abolished.
Hunt said the federal government should instead focus on training Canadians and attracting qualified immigrants.
"This supplants the immigration program, and where people used to be able to come to Canada and contribute to the fabric of Canada, this really, really undermines that," Hunt said in an interview.
"It's a way to suppress wages, labour costs, training. There are no safeguards."
The temporary foreign worker program has been the source of controversy several times in the past.
There have been concerns that live-in care workers and agricultural workers are particularly at risk of being abused or forced to work in unsafe working conditions.
Just last month, an Alberta man pleaded guilty to criminal negligence charges related to a head-on collision that killed four temporary foreign workers and injured another.
Earlier this year, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced changes designed to prevent employers linked to the sex trade from obtaining temporary foreign worker permits to hire strippers, escorts and massage parlour workers.