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Unions win right to continue challenging mining company's use of foreign workers

Two British Columbia unions won the right Thursday to further their legal challenge to a mining company's plan to bring temporary workers from China for a project near Tumbler Ridge, B.C.

The Construction and Specialized Workers' Union Local 1611 and the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 115 will now ask for access to documents they consider vital to their case against HD Mining.

Both unions alleged the company did not follow protocol to get permission to hire foreign workers.

The company and federal government had argued the unions had no right to intervene in the company's operations on the grounds they had no stake in the plan to bring more than 200 Chinese miners to the Murray River coal mine project.

Seventeen have already arrived.

In order to get permits to bring the miners to Canada, the company filed Labour Market Opinions showing they had unsuccessfully made sufficient efforts to find Canadians to fill the jobs.

But the unions alleged the company doctored job advertisements, including adding a language requirement to speak Mandarin in order to exclude Canadians and hire the Chinese miners for cheaper.

Federal Court Justice Douglas Campbell granted the unions standing on the basis their probe is in the public interest.

"At the centre of the present challenge is the serious and important issue of the legality of actions of government officials tasked with making assessments that concern both human resources and immigration matters in Canada," wrote Douglas in his reasons for order.

The two unions will now attempt to have the LMOs upon which the miners' permits are based -- along with other information -- released for their inspection.

If the unions find a cause for concern they will then apply for an injunction to stop the plan, which the company said would delay the project.

"If they were not properly approved to come, they shouldn't come," said lawyer for the unions Charles Gordon.

"If they were properly approved then they can come."

Labour groups angry about the plan point to the company's admission it interviewed 300 Canadians for the job, but hired none because they didn't have experience in underground mining as a cause for concern.

Brian Cochrane of the International Operator Engineers said the decision to grant standing is important for Canadian workers.

"I was confident we were going to win today and I was confident our arguments on having a public interest standing representing the interests of Canadian workers across the country was going to be a compelling argument," said Cochrane.

Throughout the proceedings labour representatives questioned the attempt by the federal government to prevent the unions from being granted standing, despite the government's own assertions it has concerns over how the permits were granted.

The unions, company and government will be back in court Monday to begin discussions on the release of the LMOs, but Douglas suggested they come to an agreement beforehand in hopes of going straight to a hearing if needed.

Meanwhile, the United Steelworkers union has filed a complaint with the provincial government about the safety of the Chinese miners because they only need to speak 100 English words for the job.

In a news release, the USW pointed to the Health, Safety and Reclamation Code for Mines in B.C., which said workers in mines must have "appropriate facility in English" for safety reasons.

The Murray River coal mine is a joint venture between HD Mining, its parent company Beijing-based Huiyong Holdings Group and Canadian Dehua International Mines group.

Vancouver-based journalist Jeremy Nuttall spent three years reporting in Beijing before returning to B.C. this year. Find his previous Tyee articles here.

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