The use of temporary workers from China at a northern B.C. coal mine has sparked a court fight, duelling versions of events, a federal review and a great deal of discussion.
And that's good, says Victor Wong of the Chinese-Canadian National Council.
But the issue around HD Mining International Ltd.'s decision to bring in the foreign workers for its Murray River coal mine near Tumbler Ridge, B.C., also highlights an "anti-China bias" that threatens to descend into plain, old-fashioned racism, he said.
"It has allowed some of the more racist views to come to the surface," Wong said as the controversy made headlines last week.
"That's unfortunate because this is a serious issue to address. I shouldn't have to work out a response to racism as opposed to working out a response to whether the temporary foreign worker policy is an appropriate policy and whether it's being properly applied in this case."
HD Mining has been granted permits for 201 temporary foreign workers. Sixty miners are set to arrive in mid-December; 17 arrived earlier this month.
The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 115 and the Construction and Specialized Workers Union Local 1611 have filed an application for a judicial review by the Federal Court, saying there are Canadian workers who can fill those jobs.
On Saturday, the legal and political troubles swirling around the plan to bring in the workers prompted another company, Canadian Dehua International Mines Group, to wind down work at its Wapiti River coal project, near the Murray River mine.
Canadian Dehua, which is also a minority shareholder in HD Mining, issued a statement saying the shut-down, effective Sunday at midnight, was "forced" on the company because of a "deluge" of concern from Dehua investors, a result of the temporary foreign worker controversy at HD.
Energy and Mines Minister Rich Coleman is attempting to downplay the closure of the Wapiti River coal project, issuing a statement that claims the closure is temporary and noting many mines close for the winter.
The unions say HD offered wages that were $10 to $17 an hour lower than the going rates and no benefits. They also claim the mine advertisements said workers had to speak Mandarin — claims the company denies.
The company filed an appeal Friday of a court ruling that granted the unions the right to pursue that application, which would have forced the federal government to hand over internal labour market opinions that concluded there is a labour shortage, and therefore a need for the foreign workers.
The United Steelworkers Union filed a separate complaint with the provincial mines ministry and the mine inspector alleging the temporary miners don't speak English well enough to understand their right or safety rules.
Jody Shimkus of HD Mining didn't want to speculate on whether issues of race are involved.
"I would certainly hope that that's not the case," she said.
Brian Cochrane, business manager of the Operating Engineers, said it has no place in the discussion.
"Countries that don't have great records with respect to mining practices and safety records, that gives us some concern," Cochrane said.
"But primarily, we want to make sure our Canadian standards, safety standards that we fought for long periods of time are upheld and that we manage to grow and build the safety standards and the work opportunities for Canadians."
'Our own problems'
Wong said the perception of China certainly comes into play.
"There's always some human rights thing that they do, and it's magnified when it's reported in the West," he said. "We have our own problems here and we don't tend to talk about our own problems."
China's rising position of power in the world and its growing presence in Canada is perceived as a threat, he said.
The real problem is the federal temporary foreign worker program, Wong said.
"These types of policies, they tend to be exploitative. The worker is really at the mercy of the employer," he said.
'They have no rights'
The government has created a system rife for fraud and exploitation, Wong said, and Jim Sinclair of the B.C. Federation of Labour agrees.
"They have no rights," Sinclair said.
He said temporary workers face the double jeopardy of losing their jobs and being sent home if they complain.
"You get fired and you get sent home, so it's tough. The boss has way too much power in these circumstances," Sinclair said.
Human Resources Minister Diane Finley has announced a review of the program in light of the controversy surrounding the Murray River mine.