Details about temporary foreign workers in Canadian mines remain elusive
by Greg Klein
Canada’s temporary foreign worker controversy first blew up over news that a Chinese-owned mining company planned to import Chinese workers for a British Columbia mine. The issue eventually simmered down, only to explode again with allegations that fast food restaurants, among other employers, were abusing the federal program. But after all this time the extent to which Canadian mines employ TFWs remains an elusive topic. Of those who might know, few people answer questions.
TFWs first came to media prominence in October 2012 when the United Steelworkers revealed that HD Mining International, owned by Mandarin-speaking Chinese, was importing Mandarin-speaking Chinese miners for its proposed Murray River coal mine in northeastern B.C. Company spokesperson Blair Lekstrom now says the plan was intended to be short-term all along. But until recently the company gave a strong impression that one ethnic and linguistic group would have a 10-year lockhold on the proposed mine’s underground jobs.
Lekstrom insists that was never the intention. Moreover he suggests there might have been a discriminatory aspect to some critics of the company. Anglo American, he told ResourceClips.com, uses Australian TFWs at its Canadian mine, an open pit coal operation also in northeastern B.C.’s Peace River region.
Anglo’s Vancouver office directed inquiries to its Australian HQ, where ResourceClips.com was referred to corporate affairs officer Jacqui Strambi. Over a four-day period ResourceClips.com tried to contact her numerous times by phone and e-mail to ask whether the Australian company does employ Australian TFWs in Canada—and if so how many, for how long, in what jobs and why.
She didn’t respond.
An outspoken advocate of TFWs, B.C.’s Independent Contractors and Businesses Association president Philip Hochstein has accused labour unions of keeping quiet about unionized TFWs working in mines. “Plenty” of B.C. mines use TFWs, he tells ResourceClips.com. But he isn’t sure which mines. He cites Teck Resources TSX:TCK.A and Taseko Mines TSX:TKO as possibilities.
Not us, says Taseko. “No we don’t and we haven’t done in the past,” maintains Brian Battison, the company’s VP of corporate affairs. “We don’t use temporary foreign workers.”
ResourceClips.com contacted Teck with a series of questions on May 5. Senior communications specialist Chris Stannell e-mailed that he’s looking into the request. But by press time May 8 he hadn’t replied with answers.
Hochstein refers further inquiries to Karina Briño, president/CEO of the Mining Association of B.C. “I’d call her,” Hochstein says. “She would know.”
She doesn’t. “We don’t keep that data, we don’t keep that information,” she says.
As for the Mining Association of Canada, “It’s not on our radar right now,” responds media spokesperson Jessica Draker. “It hasn’t been raised by our membership as something they want us involved in yet. That may change.”
Neither mining association can be faulted for not tracking the data. But if any entity would know, it would be Employment and Social Development Canada, the federal department responsible for the TFW program. Last week ResourceClips.com asked the department three questions about HD Mining’s 201 approved TFW permits. Media relations spokesperson Jordan Sinclair responded with a 405-word e-mail containing four links (one of them broken) to ministry statements. Nothing in the e-mail or external statements answered the questions.
Pointing out the non-response, ResourceClips.com re-sent the three questions along with some additional inquiries about Anglo American. An auto-reply from Sinclair indicated he would be away until April 1. He didn’t specify which year.
A second media contact at the ministry failed to respond by press time.
Both the B.C. and Canadian mining associations express concern about skills shortages, which are also being addressed by organizations ranging from the Canadian Chamber of Commerce to the Mining Industry Human Resources Council. But forecasting which skills will be in demand—and when and for how long—seems as chancy as predicting commodity prices.
No we don’t and we haven’t done in the past. We don’t use temporary foreign workers.—Brian Battison, VP of corporate affairs for Taseko Mines
In a statement last November, the chamber identified “the skills gap as the most pressing issue” affecting Canadian businesses. The same report quoted Mining Association of Canada president/CEO Pierre Gratton cautioning that “industry context is essential to understanding the skills shortages. Sweeping claims about shortages across the whole economy can misrepresent important industry-specific trends and regional labour market pressures and shortages.”
MABC’s Briño adds that “the temporary foreign worker program is only one of the tools the industry has used in the past to fill that gap.” She points to the B.C. HR Task Force in which “employers, labour, aboriginal leaders and some educational institutions and government come to the table to look at labour market demands and figure out what needs to be done to ensure we have the right people in our jobs.”
But could there be too much consultation and too little training? Marlon Whoolery, training director at the Pennsylvania- and West Virginia-based Mining Technology and Training Center, says American mining companies bear the brunt of training new employees. That’s true in longwall mining, the underground technique that HD Mining at first indicated could only be done by TFWs.
Briño responds that Canadian companies “do spend a considerable amount of resources and effort to provide training.”
HD Mining’s Lekstrom, meanwhile, wonders whether enough Canadians will even want underground mining jobs.
True, most B.C. mines are open pits. But that’s just one part of Canada. As for the Taseko Gibraltar copper-molybdenum open pit, there’s a waiting list to get in. “We’ve got lots of resumes,” says Taseko’s Battison. “We’ve got a big stack of resumes there. They’re local or regional or British Columbian or wherever.”