Amid criticism, foreign worker permits scrutinized

A program that enables B.C. mining companies to hire temporary foreign workers to fill labor shortages is under review

The federal government is reviewing a program that enables employers, including B.C. mining companies, to hire temporary foreign workers to fill labor shortages.

The review was launched after HD Mining Ltd. obtained permission to hire hundreds of Chinese workers for exploration at the site of an underground coal mine near Tumbler Ridge, B.C.

“We are not satisfied that sufficient efforts were made to recruit or train Canadians interested in these jobs,” said Diane Finley, Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC), in a statement on Thursday, Nov. 8.

“It is clear to our government that there are some problems with the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.”

Federal approval of the permits drew immediate criticism and condemnation from labor unions and political leaders.

“It’s just ridiculous to be filling potentially thousands of B.C. mining jobs with foreign workers when unemployment remains stubbornly high in many parts of Canada, including here in our riding,” said Nathan Cullen, MP for Skeena-Bulkley Valley, in a statement on Oct. 31.

A spokesperson for HRSDC described the program as “an option of last resort” that requires employers to “demonstrate that they have made fair and extensive efforts to recruit and train Canadians” before they can hire temporary foreign workers.

“Our government believes that Canadians must always have first crack at job opportunities in Canada,” said Finley.

As of Oct. 29, 2012, there were 19 active mines in B.C., incuding nine metal mines – gold, silver, copper, zinc, lead and molybdenum – and 10 coal mines, according to the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Natural Gas.

In addition to mining companies, temporary foreign workers are recruited by the province’s agricultural sector. Even B.C. Hydro, a Crown corporation, is experiencing labor shortages and hires foreign workers to help install electrical lines, explained John Rustad, MLA for Nechako Lakes.

“We’re in a situation in B.C. where, if we don’t have foreign workers that come in, those projects will not go forward,” he said.

“There aren’t enough people available to do the job.”