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B.C.’s longwall controversy

May 2nd, 2014

HD Mining says it will hire Canadians after all—if they want the jobs

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.

HD Mining says it will hire Canadians after all—if they want the jobs

A longwall shearer with cutting drums and
movable hydraulic roof supports called shields.

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 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 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 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 about how the reforms might affect HD Mining’s 201 approved applications.

May 8, 2014, update: Details about temporary foreign workers in Canadian mines remain elusive.

695 B.C. coal miners laid off but HD Mining wants workers from China: B.C. minister issues statement on imported labour

April 17th, 2014

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 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.

695 B.C. coal miners laid off but HD Mining wants workers from China: B.C. minister issues statement on imported labour

Shirley Bond

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.