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Chinese nationals brought in to fill B.C. coal miner shortage

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Peter Oneil

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Vancouver Sun

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OTTAWA — The first of a group of 200 temporary Chinese workers approved by the federal government will start arriving in B.C. in coming weeks to work in the burgeoning northeast coal industry, a mine project spokeswoman confirmed Tuesday.

In total, anywhere from 1,600 to just under 2,000 Chinese nationals could find full-time work in four projects being proposed in coming years for the region, due to the shortage of underground mining skills in Canada, according to industry officials.

The four projects could create an estimated 480 to 800 full-time mining jobs for Canadians.

Canadians “just don’t have the experience” operating the equipment needed to safely extract coal in underground mines, said John Cavanagh, chief executive of Vancouver-based Canadian Dehua International Mines Group Inc., a company founded by China-born Vancouver businessman Naishun Liu.

“Without the Chinese and the technology they’re bringing … these particular mines would not have been developed.”

The companies backing the mine projects say their goal is to gradually train Canadians to replace the Chinese.

Cavanagh noted that it will be “many years” between the projected 2015 opening of the first mine and the fourth mine, due to the need for more exploration, mine design, environmental review, and government approval for all projects.

The necessity of foreign workers wasn’t mentioned in B.C. Premier Christy Clark’s Nov. 9, 2011, news release from Beijing, in which she announced $1.4 billion in Chinese funding for two of the four coal projects.

“This investment clearly shows how confident China is in British Columbia’s world-class mining resources and strong investment climate,” Clark said.

“These two projects support our B.C. Jobs Plan and according to the companies will create over 6,700 jobs and other economic benefits for British Columbians.”

Cavanagh stressed that the four mines will create numerous spinoff jobs for British Columbians – three for every one full-time job generated — as well as significant personal and corporate tax revenues.

The 200 workers who got federal government approval under the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program will participate in a 100,000-tonne bulk sampling of a coal seam at the proposed Murray River underground coal mine located on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains about 10 kilometres southwest of Tumbler Ridge.

This is the most advanced of four underground mines being developed in the region by a number of Chinese companies working with Canadian Dehua. Each is expected to employ an estimated 600 workers.

Up to 480 of those employees at the Murray River project will be Chinese nationals brought in under the TFW program, said Jody Shimkus, vice-president of environmental and regulatory affairs at HD Mining International Ltd., Canadian Dehua’s major partner in the project.

Canadian Dehua’s Cavanagh said all four mines will have roughly the same number of overall workers, and roughly the same proportion of Chinese workers who are being brought in because they are familiar with equipment used in a form of underground coal extraction called longwall mining.

However, he said it could be misleading to assume all four projects will have a full complement of 400-480 Chinese nationals working underground at the same time, since all are at various stages of development.

The earliest project to be fully operational is the Murray River mine, in 2015.

Stephen Hunt, western director for the United Steelworkers union, ridiculed Tuesday the suggestion Canadians couldn’t be trained to work underground.

“Bullshit,” he said of Cavanagh’s assertions.

“That’s just a cop-out, a way to bring in guest workers who are going to go into a camp, contribute virtually nothing to the economy, and then when they’re done they’ll be sent back to China,” he said.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada spokeswoman Nancy Caron said the TFW program is employer-driven and usually requires that companies prove they are unable to find suitable Canadians to fill the job posts.

She and various industry officials said Canada’s labour shortage in the mining sector is well-documented.

Caroline McAndrews, spokeswoman for Jobs, Tourism and Innovation Minister Pat Bell, said the B.C. government is working with Ottawa and the mining, construction and technology sectors to meet “urgent” labour and skills shortages.

“The province continues to invest in efforts to ensure that British Columbians have the skills and training required to take advantage of employment opportunities across B.C., as outlined in the recently released Skills and Training Plan for B.C.,” she said in a statement.

Mining Association of B.C. president Karina Brino said there will be a widespread shortage of skilled labour over the next decade in B.C. even without expected growth in the mining sector.

There is only one underground mine in B.C., on Vancouver Island, she noted. “So definitely there’s going to be a need for that specific skill set.”

An internal C.I.C. document made public Tuesday noted the growth of coal mine development involving Chinese firms in northeastern B.C.

“These mining operations could eventually see several hundreds of … underground miners coming to Canada” under the TFW program, concluded the C.I.C. document obtained by immigration lawyer Richard Kurland.

Cavanagh said the Chinese workers in northeastern B.C. will receive a “competitive” wage, but Steelworkers spokesman Hunt said the company is clearly hoping to keep labour costs down by using Canada’s TFW program to make sure it has low-wage workers.

Hunt also warned of safety concerns, citing the numerous coal mining deaths that occur in China.

“We’ve been tracking coal mine disasters weekly and the numbers are staggering again this year. It’s just a terrible place to be for a coal miner.”

The China Mine Disaster Watch, a website kept by the U.S. Mine Rescue Association, says there were more than 50,000 coal mine deaths in the 2001-2011 period. But deaths have declined over that time, from a high of 6,995 in 2002 to 1,973 last year.

Cavanagh said there are old mines using old technology in China, and more modern ones using “state of the art” systems. He said the Canadian mines will use the latter technology.

“We have to operate under Canadian and British Columbia rules. The standards are not Chinese standards,” he said.

The C.I.C. report said the federal government is working closely with the B.C. government to ensure workers have enough English language skills to help in the “transition” of knowledge from Chinese to Canadian workers.

Cavanagh said the training will involve teaching Chinese workers roughly 100 English words, all related to safety. There will also be translators on site with technical expertise, he added.


Economic sectors

Natural resources, agriculture and related production occupations - general and Other

Content types

Policy analysis

Target groups

Public awareness, Researchers, Unions, and NGOs/community groups/solidarity networks

Geographical focuses

British Columbia, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Sri Lanka

Spheres of activity

Law and Management of human resources