The Canadians Are Having a Healthy, Outspoken Foreign Worker Battle

By David North, November 29, 2012

The Canadians are having a delightful and totally appropriate battle over foreign workers — coal miners from China.

Here's the situation:

  • A Chinese-controlled mining firm wants to open a new coal mine in a remote location in the northern part of British Columbia.

  • It has convinced the Conservative government in Ottawa to let it have 200 or so coal miners from China, a down payment on a contemplated alien workforce of 2,000.

  • A member of the Canadian Cabinet, however, is asking tough questions about how thoroughly the mining firm sought to hire Canadian workers.

  • Organized labor has complained vigorously, as has the main opposition party, the New Democratic Party.

  • The case is in the courts, with the judge, in an initial ruling, siding with the unions.

  • The press is paying serious attention to the issue, day after day.

In short, instead of rolling over and largely ignoring the continuing influx of huge numbers of H-1B and other foreign workers, as most Americans seem to do, various elements in Canada are fighting this foreign-worker decision tooth and nail. It is positively refreshing.

The Chinese-controlled firm is based in Vancouver and is called HD Mining. The controlling interest in HD is owned by Huiyong Holdings, a privately held operation in China that also runs nine coal mines there. The minority interest in HD is held by a Canadian firm founded by a China-born businessman, Naishun Liu. Liu, a resident of Vancouver, is probably the beneficiary of the Canadian version of America's EB-5 (immigrant investor) program, an arrangement that has attracted many wealthy Chinese to that city.

HD Mining has argued that it needs workers who are familiar with "long wall underground coal mining", which it insists is a technique not known to Canadian coal miners, hence the Chinese workers are needed. (Wikipedia says that the technique was first worked out in the United Kingdom some 200 years ago, and is used extensively in the United States.)

The unions, including the Operating Engineers and the Steelworkers, both of which have locals in both the United States and Canada, say that these jobs should be filled by out-of-work Canadians and that the wages approved by the Conservative government are $10 to $17 an hour below the prevailing level. The Steelworkers have, appropriately, pointed out the terrible death rates in China's coal mines that have recently averaged about 5,000 a year, suggesting that importing that level of death and dysfunction would not be good for Canada.

The unions also charged, in court, that some of the HD help-wanted ads required that the coal miners speak Mandarin. The company denies it.

The federal Human Resources Minister, Diane Finley, has latched onto the language issue saying in a statement: "The requirement that applicants have skills in a foreign language does not appear to be linked to a genuine job requirement."

Another charge against HD is that the Chinese coal miners had to pay steep fees to get the jobs in Canada, something that is contrary to British Columbia law.

The unions have gone into federal court seeking a review of the matter. HD Mining said that the unions had no standing (i.e., no right to be in court), but that position was rejected by the judge. HD has appealed.

The whole business sounds all too familiar: Wealthy members of a society seek to exploit rank-and-file members of their own society; fees are charged to desperately poor Chinese coal miners wanting to work in another country; Asian interests exploit a not-very-attractive industry in a non-Asian country; and Chinese corporations cozy up to the employer-oriented immigration decision-makers in the host country.

Substitute the coal mines for the garment sweatshops in a U.S. territory, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a few years back, and you have virtually the same situation, down to the facts that virtually all of the fee-charged garment workers were Chinese and that all of the Chinese companies were privately held, meaning that there was never any need to report to any shareholders or file any financial statements.

While all that sounds too much like the exploitation of alien workers in the United States, there is a difference in this story — the amount of press attention.

There is a continuing flow of well-researched, sharply written news articles throughout the nation, but particularly in the biggest newspaper west of Toronto, the Vancouver Sun. See, for instance:

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Will the Conservative government in Ottawa continue to identify with the exploitative foreign employers, or with its own people?