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.”
by Greg Klein
Has there been a change of plans? Or was it a misunderstanding all along?
A veteran politician now working for HD Mining International says the company intends to hire and train Canadian longwall miners for what will be, should its proposed coal mine go into production, an English-speaking operation. He wonders, however, how many Canadians would be interested.
That qualification notwithstanding, his statements seem to differ substantially from the company’s original position, which ignited a controversy beginning in October 2012.
Saying too few Canadians had longwall mining experience, HD Mining received federal government approval to import 201 Chinese miners. The plan, as reported by media and the company itself, was to staff underground operations at its proposed Murray River mine in northeastern British Columbia with Mandarin-speaking Chinese workers for 10 years. The company, owned by Mandarin-speaking Chinese, insisted that only Mandarin-speaking Chinese knew its longwall system.
But Blair Lekstrom, an adviser to HD Mining chairperson Penggui Yan, says the company’s intentions have been misunderstood.
The project’s underground staff now consists of 51 Chinese recruited under Canada’s temporary foreign worker (TFW) program. They’re currently building a decline to conduct a bulk sample that will take about 18 months to complete, Lekstrom tells ResourceClips.com. Should the company go into commercial production, “we’ve made a commitment to train—and we’re in discussions with Northern Lights College—Canadians who want to do this work.” He says the current crew was granted TFW status only to conduct the “highly specialized” bulk sample.
“Chairman Yan has said we will train as many Canadians who want to work in our mine, but first we have to prove there is a mine.”
In November 2012, after about six weeks of critical publicity, the company signed a memorandum of understanding with Northern Lights College in the town of Tumbler Ridge to develop a longwall training program. Lekstrom says the curriculum would be developed following a decision to operate a mine.
Several American operations use longwall mining. But the companies themselves provide specialized training, according to Marlon Whoolery, training director at the Mining Technology and Training Center, which has campuses in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. “I don’t know of any training facility that trains specifically to work on the longwall because there’s various types of longwall machines, various shields, panels, shears, different stage loaders, different tailgates. Most training centres prepare a miner to go to work at the mine then the coal company trains them to the longwall system they have.”
He says U.S. federal law requires a minimum of 40 hours’ training before a novice can work underground, while some states require longer periods. The length of time to become a certified miner also varies from one state to another. West Virginia requires six months of experience while Pennsylvania requires a year.
During that time, specialized training “could be a matter of weeks or months to run a particular portion of the longwall,” Whoolery adds. “To be the shear operator in Pennsylvania you have to have machine operator’s papers in the state and it takes a year underground before you can apply for those.”
Whoolery doesn’t know of any American parallels to the HD Mining controversy. He says Massey Energy threatened to import Mexican workers years ago. The company, associated with the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 people, was later bought out by Alpha Natural Resources NYE:ANR.
“I don’t believe there’s any mine in this country that brings miners in from somewhere else. I’m not saying there’s not mines, especially out west, that may have immigrants that are in this country illegally but I don’t know of any mine that solely operates with a workforce that they brought from another country.”
But Lekstrom insists that never was HD Mining’s intention. “Our goal is to hire and train Canadian workers that will work there and English will be the prevailing language.” Mandarin will “absolutely not” be the working language, he emphasizes.
I talk to a lot of people up here and a lot of my friends, and not many of them seem anxious about thinking underground mining might be in their future.—Blair Lekstrom,
HD Mining adviser
Lekstrom maintains there’s been no change in policy. “They’ve made that commitment from the beginning.” As for impressions to the contrary, “I would say it was a misconception.”
But any “misconception” was understandable. In October 2012 Jody Shimkus, HD Mining’s VP of environmental and regulatory affairs, told ResourceClips.com the company would likely need a decade to train a Canadian underground crew. “We’ve set a target of 10 years, recognizing that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done particularly with the local community, the educational institutions and the provincial government to develop a program that transfers the skill set. If we can achieve that target earlier, that would be great.”
Lekstrom, a former B.C. mines minister and mayor of Dawson Creek, suggests there’s a discriminatory aspect to the controversy. “Because [the TFWs] are Chinese they seem to be looked at different than the Australians, many who are over here working in mines.” He says an Anglo American project, also in the Peace River region, employs Australian TFWs. A ResourceClips.com inquiry to Anglo American’s Vancouver branch was referred to the company’s Brisbane office too late for a response by press time.
Murray River benefits Canadians, Lekstrom says. “We have spent to date about $90 million. The vast majority of that is on Canadian content. Most of the work that has been done to date has been done by Canadian workers—ground service prep whether it be fuel services, road services, hauling and trucking, drilling and blasting, surveying, the list is long.”
His remarks follow months of controversy over alleged abuse of Canada’s TFW program by companies importing staff ranging from fast food workers to helicopter pilots. Then, last month, Walter Energy NYE:WLT announced 695 layoffs for two open pit mines in the same region as Murray River. A week later Teck Resources TCK.A announced another 80 layoffs for the region, as the company postponed the restart of its Quintette open pit operations.
Still, Lekstrom wonders how many Canadians want underground jobs. “I talk to a lot of people up here and a lot of my friends, and not many of them seem anxious about thinking underground mining might be in their future. We’ll see.”
Canada’s Minister of Employment and Social Development Jason Kenney has announced plans to reform the TFW program. An e-mail from his department didn’t answer questions from ResourceClips.com about how the reforms might affect HD Mining’s 201 approved applications.
by Greg Klein | April 17, 2014
(May 2, 2014, update: HD Mining now says it will hire Canadian underground workers.)
Announced April 15, Walter Energy’s (TSX:WLT) decision to suspend its British Columbia operations kills 695 coal mining jobs in a region where HD Mining International wants to import up to 480 Chinese workers for its proposed Murray River coal mine. HD Mining’s rationale, which was supported by both the federal and provincial governments, is that only Mandarin-speaking Chinese understand the company’s system of longwall mining.
Most B.C. operations are open pits. HD Mining’s owners are Mandarin-speaking Chinese.
The scheme was brought to light in October 2012 by the United Steelworkers. Since then legal challenges by B.C. unions have so far been unsuccessful despite evidence that HD Mining offered pay rates below Canadian standards, rejected qualified Canadians and posted job openings in Canada that made Mandarin a job requirement.
Controversy prompted the federal government to review its temporary foreign worker program and crack down on alleged abuse, most recently by fast food restaurants. HD Mining eventually stated that within a few years of operation it would “transition” 10% of Murray River’s underground jobs each year to Canadians. But the company didn’t say whether the jobs would go to Mandarin-speaking workers who become Canadian citizens three years after arrival.
Still pending is legal action launched by the USW in December to challenge a provincial permit for underground bulk sampling at Murray River. The union argued there were “grave concerns” about the Mandarin-speaking operation’s ability to meet B.C. safety standards.
By press time USW communications officer Brad West hadn’t responded to a ResourceClips.com request to comment on HD Mining in view of the Walter Energy layoffs. Inquires to B.C.’s Ministry of Energy and Mines were directed to the province’s Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training. On April 17 Minister Shirley Bond released the following statement by e-mail.
Our government believes in saying yes to economic development so we attract investment that creates jobs and promotes mining development in B.C. If the Murray River project becomes a fully developed mine, we plan to do everything we can to ensure British Columbians are trained to fill these jobs first.
Our position on [temporary foreign workers] has been very clear: British Columbians will be first in line for jobs in our province, then Canadians, then immigrants and TFWs only as a last resort. But there are times when there is a legitimate need for TFWs. In these cases employers must follow a rigorous process that shows there are no Canadians that can first fill the position.
I know that the recent changes by the federal government have aimed to ensure that Canadians, and by extension British Columbians, are given the first chance at available jobs. We hope that any reforms made by the federal government will ensure the program fits its intended use.
HD Mining, the Vancouver-based company that sparked controversy in 2012 with a scheme to hire up to 2,000 Chinese miners for its proposed $300-million northern B.C. coal mine, is facing yet another union legal challenge over its use of temporary foreign workers.
The United Steelworkers union is asking the British Columbia Supreme Court to revoke the miner’s exploration permit, arguing the province’s chief inspector of mines shouldn’t have granted the authorization without effectively addressing concerns the workers would not be fluent in English. They claim the foreign workers’ lack of English would pose a potential safety risk.
“No part of that application addresses the ability of Mandarin-speaking workers, who have minimal facility of the English language, to work safely at the Murray River project,” said the union in a press release.
The court document, which contains unproven allegations, names the provincial Ministry of Energy and Mines, the chief inspector of mines, which falls under the ministry, and HD Mining.
HD’s Murray River project, near Tumbler Ridge, B.C., is still in the early stages of seeking regulatory approval, but it currently has a permit for exploration and sampling work.
Reprinted by permission of MINING.com
by Greg Klein
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Mining and exploration companies headquartered in British Columbia operate all over the world. But what’s it actually like to work in their home province? With coincidental timing, two recent events brought that question to mind. On October 3 the Fraser Institute released a report on B.C.’s mining policies. The next day the province’s minister of energy and mines touted his government’s work to a gathering of 180 industry professionals.
The Fraser Institute based its report, British Columbia’s Mining Policy Performance: Improving B.C.’s Attractiveness to Mining Investment, on past results from an annual international survey of industry executives. The 75-page B.C. study addresses “four barriers to investment”—unresolved land claims, regions declared off limits to mining, environmental uncertainty and regulatory hurdles.
Alana Wilson, one of the report’s three authors, tells ResourceClips.com the provincial mining study is the first of its kind for the Fraser Institute. A Quebec report is scheduled for release late this year or early next.
The organization’s annual mining surveys, she says, “get a tremendous amount of media interest. We also get a lot of calls and inquiries from government ministries around the world asking about our survey methodology, how specific factors are calculated. We know that governments are cognizant of the survey results and pay attention to them. But in terms of translating that into tangible policy changes, I can’t give any specific examples.”
As expected, the report finds B.C.’s unresolved land claims “the single greatest factor deterring mining investment” over the last five years. The authors call on the province to expedite the treaty process, find ways to deal with bands not participating in the process, “develop clearer guidance for third parties to facilitate meeting the Crown’s duty to consult” and discuss policy changes with industry.
Second on the list of concerns is the threat that exploration and mining will be banned from certain regions. Indeed, the Windy Craggy “horror story” continues to haunt the industry. That 1993 New Democratic Party decision saw something of a BC Liberal reprise in 2010, when the government suddenly declared the Flathead Valley off limits to exploration.
Addressing the third barrier, the authors question the credibility of B.C.’s environmental regulations. “Where regulations are opaque and unpredictable, the perception can arise that the process has been politicized, allowing special interest groups or politics, rather than scientific evidence, to guide policy decisions.” In that context the report calls on the province to reconsider its ban on uranium and thorium mining.
Duplication, inconsistencies and federal/provincial overlap make up the fourth barrier. The institute recommends Ottawa “provide greater clarity and consistent application of expenses eligible for Canadian exploration expenses,” and that both levels of government gradually remove “distortionary tax incentives in favour of a single, lower rate of corporate income tax.” Both parties should continue working “towards a single, clear and predictable one project/one process” regimen, the report urges. And, surprisingly given the public backlash that defeated the B.C./federal harmonized sales tax, the authors want the province to re-examine the HST.
Yet they give B.C. credit too. The golden years of 2003 to 2007 were “also facilitated by improvements to the permitting process, including a new online mineral tenure system.” Royalty sharing offers natives “a more active role in benefiting from mining and resource development.” Reporting comments from surveys of previous years, the report quotes unnamed exploration executives who praised B.C. policies.
Several other respondents differed, however, with remarks that are almost beyond the pale. Some examples include “aboriginal land grabs and shaking companies down for handouts and royalties” and “uncertainty related to the first nations ‘veto’ over mining projects.”
But native involvement is an opportunity, not an impediment, the province’s minister of energy and mines said in his October 4 remarks to the Association for Mineral Exploration B.C. Bill Bennett had little else to say about the industry’s greatest concern, even though he repeatedly described his talk as a report, not a speech. Nevertheless his feel-good generalities were warmly received by the lunchtime audience.
He did have some specifics, though. “We’re not going to raise your taxes,” he said to applause.
“We have no plans to change the Mineral Tenures Act with respect to notice or adding to the obligation to consult.”
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by Greg Klein | September 26, 2013
Former British Columbia cabinet minister Blair Lekstrom has joined HD Mining International, a company that plans to staff underground operations at its proposed Murray River coal mine exclusively with Chinese workers. A Canadian Press story published by the Vancouver Sun on September 25 cited an August 22 letter from HD Mining that confirmed the hire.
Last May the company defeated a court challenge by two unions against its use of Canada’s temporary foreign workers program to import Mandarin-speaking underground staff. The company argued that no Canadians were qualified to do the work. The unions presented evidence that HD Mining was offering pay rates below Canadian standards, the company rejected qualified Canadians and many of the job ads posted in Canada made Mandarin a language requirement.
Critics also expressed strong concerns about job safety, pointing to the Chinese mining industry’s notoriously high death rate. As Bloomberg reported in April, “China’s history of mining incidents includes the world’s worst safety record at its coal mines, which saw 1,973 people killed in accidents in 2011 and 2,433 the year before that, according to the State Administration of Work Safety.”
HD Mining is held 55% by Huiyong Holdings, a coal mining company in China, 40% by Canadian Dehua International Mines Group and 5% by an unnamed party.
Penggui Yan, chairperson of both HD Mining and Huiyong Holdings, was formerly a Chinese government official and manager of the state-owned mining company Shenhua Group, the Globe and Mail reported in February. Canadian Dehua has proposed at least three more Chinese-staffed coal mines for the same northeastern B.C. region.
The BC Liberal government strongly supported HD Mining’s plan and knew about a similar scheme by Naishun Liu, Canadian Dehua’s Chinese-born founder and chairperson, at least as far back as 2007.
Last November Vancouver Province columnist Michael Smyth revealed that “the main point person for the Chinese mining companies in B.C. is Jody Shimkus, a former assistant deputy minister of mining in the Liberal government.”
Smyth reported she left her government job in January 2012 to join HD Mining: “Under conflict-of-interest rules, senior managers face work restrictions for one year after they leave government. Senior managers can’t take a job with a company they dealt with in government, and can’t lobby or make representations on behalf of a company to the ministry where they formerly worked, the rules say.”
Smyth quoted Shimkus, “I never dealt with HD in government and I haven’t lobbied for them.”
Smyth added that “she also said she didn’t know about the one-year work restrictions when she signed on as HD’s vice-president of environmental and regulatory affairs.”
She told Smyth, “I don’t know what ‘make representations’ means. All I’ve done is help them through the environmental permitting process.”
Lekstrom, first elected to his northeastern B.C. riding in 2001, retired prior to last May’s B.C. provincial election. He held cabinet positions for Transportation and Infrastructure from March 2011 to September 2012, and Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources from January 2009 to June 2010. He held the latter ministry when the province banned mining in southeastern B.C.’s Flathead Valley following pressure by American environmentalists and politicians.
HD Mining originally stated it would import between 400 and 480 Chinese workers at a time on two-year visas to staff Murray River’s underground operations up to 2025. In January, following widespread criticism, the company said it would “transition” 10% of the underground jobs to Canadians each year. The question remains of how many of those jobs will go to imported miners who become Canadian citizens.
Speaking to ResourceClips.com in May, United Steelworkers western Canada director Stephen Hunt said, “If you look at the debacle with HD Mining, no one even thought of employing first nations people.”
In an April article about Chinese-owned and staffed mines in Tibet, the Economist stated, “Managers at big state-owned firms are usually Han Chinese, who in turn tend to regard their own ethnic kin as easier to control and communicate with than Tibetans.”
by Greg Klein
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A Quebec rescue team recovered the bodies of two quarry workers on Saturday, four days after a landslide buried them in an open gravel pit. Daniel Brisebois and Marie-Claude Laporte worked for Maskimo Construction at L’Epiphanie, about 50 kilometres northeast of Montreal.
On Tuesday Eastern Platinum TSX:ELR reported the death of Allan Swartz, a shift supervisor at the Crocodile River Mine in South Africa, after he fell through an empty ore pass.
Five workers from Braeval Mining’s TSX:BVL Snow Mine project in northern Colombia remain missing after being abducted by the National Liberation Army (ELN) on January 18.
Natives end De Beers protest
A four-day blockade outside De Beers Victor diamond mine in northern Ontario ended peacefully Thursday night, the Timmins Press reported. A company spokesperson told the paper that De Beers agreed to discuss changes to an existing impact benefit agreement regarding employment, training “and maximizing the benefits.”
Supply convoys were prevented from reaching the site by about 16 protestors from the native community of Attawapiskat, 90 kilometres away.
Vague definitions give aboriginals enormous power
In Saturday’s Globe and Mail, columnist Jeffrey Simpson rather candidly addressed the vague but powerful native rights that have created a “de facto veto” over resource development in Canada.
Native demands, he wrote, stem from “treaty rights, however defined, and from aboriginal rights, however defined, in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” In its 1997 Delgamuukw decision, Canada’s Supreme Court established the duty to consult natives before working on Crown land. But the court didn’t define the consultation process except to say, in effect, “the stronger the aboriginal [land] claim, the more serious the consultation,” Simpson stated.
Consequently “it’s obviously in the interests of aboriginals to make the most sweeping initial claims possible, whether they have much justification in history, current reality or law. As long as the claim is there, aboriginals can interpret Delgamuukw as giving them a de facto veto, even if that isn’t what the ruling said.”
In a later court ruling, “once again, the meaning and reality of ‘consult’ was left vague, perhaps necessarily so, since how can one define a process of consultation that would be agreed to by all parties. In practice, what ‘consult’ means to aboriginals is ‘we must agree.’”
Most recently, a December decision from the Yukon Court of Appeal declared that the territorial government must consult and “accommodate” the Ross River Dena Council even before very early-stage prospecting in the Ross River area. The ruling is considered to have strong repercussions for other jurisdictions as well.
“Even before a company does anything, the government’s obligation to consult kicks in. From now on—in ways yet to be determined—governments have to consult aboriginals before anything is done that might some day, somehow, have an impact on whatever land they might claim, or have claimed, even if such claims haven’t been tested or resolved,” Simpson wrote.
The Yukon government may appeal the decision. But Simpson’s conclusion might imply that judges already have their minds made up.
“Aboriginals must be delighted with goalposts moving closer all the time toward their conception of consultation as approval by them of anything and everything that might occur on land over which they claim rights, proven or unproven.”
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