It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Nearly a year ago, B.C. Premier Christy Clark was clearly having a good day on her trade mission to China. In an exultant press release datelined Beijing, Nov. 11, 2011, the premier announced a substantial infusion of Chinese capital for two new projects in the B.C. coal mining industry, an investment that would, she said, result in thousands of new jobs. The press release opened on a triumphant note:
"Premier Christy Clark today announced financing worth $1.36 billion for two major investments which will eventually create over 6,700 jobs. 'This investment clearly shows how confident China is in British Columbia's world-class mining resources and strong investment climate,' said Premier Christy Clark. 'These two projects support our BC Jobs Plan and according to the companies will create over 6,700 jobs and other economic benefits for British Columbians.'"
What the provincial leader didn't mention was that most of the direct mining jobs would go to temporary foreign workers brought to mining camps in the northeast of the province from China. Now, as British Columbians get a closer look at the deal's implications, the government is facing criticism from a local union that says the use of temporary foreign workers will deny jobs to Canadians and expose the temporary workers to exploitation. Environmentalists are piling on, saying that the climate destabilizing coal should remain in the ground because of its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. And a local First Nation isn't budging in its firm rejection of the mine.
On Oct. 10, the Vancouver Sun's Peter O'Neil revealed, to readers who had missed an earlier Tyee story on the matter, that the majority of the mining jobs created by the new investment announced last year would be filled by Chinese miners brought into Canada under the highly controversial temporary foreign worker program.
The Sun reported that up to 2,000 of the 2,800 jobs to be created at four new mines would go to Chinese nationals.
The first two hundred Chinese miners are expected to arrive in B.C. within weeks, with the balance expected to arrive over a matter of years as four mines are developed in northeast B.C.
Gov't explanations termed 'B.S.' by union
B.C.'s Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training Pat Bell told CBC radio on Oct. 10 that the jobs taken by Chinese workers would be short term, lasting only six to eight months, and were necessary because Canada did not have enough skilled miners available.
"This particular set of skills is one that we'll have to build. It doesn't really exist in Canada," Bell said. "While we are very good at large, open pit mines, we are not very good at underground coal mines," he added.
Steve Hunt, Western Canada director for the United Steelworkers, called government explanations for bringing in the temporary workers "bullshit." He said the government's key goal here was "cheap labour."
"We could easily find or train the needed miners here in Canada," Hunt told the Tyee on Friday. "We have been training underground miners in this country for over a century, and we could have workers ready to go in less than two months."
Hunt emphasized that his union had no quarrel with the Chinese miners themselves.
"They're just trying to make a living, just like my members," Hunt said. "Our quarrel is with the temporary foreign worker program that brings in workers, drives down wages, uses them up like spare parts and then ships them back home."
Hunt told The Tyee that he and his union took issue with a Tory government he said was constantly increasing the movement of temporary labour into Canada under conditions that exposed the "guest workers" to exploitation, drove down Canadian wages and working conditions and denied the foreign workers a chance to settle and make a life in Canada. He said that he expected the Chinese workers would be paid 10 to 15 dollars an hour less than unionized miners in Canada.
'Temp workers likely to be exploited': anti-racism advocate
Hunt also warned that the vulnerable foreign workers would not be able to enforce even the minimal protections available here for non-unionized workers.
"Imagine one of these Chinese miners trying to enforce health and safety or hours of work protections under Canadian law," Hunt said. "He'd be on a plane home the next day."
Hunt said that his union has heard from many temporary foreign workers across the country who are afraid to complain about how they are being exploited by Canadian employers, for fear of losing their jobs.
Harsha Walia, an activist with No One is Illegal, a Canadian grassroots migrant justice group, agrees with Hunt that the temporary foreign worker program fosters worker exploitation.
"I think it is really positive that the Steelworkers are alive to the danger of anti-Chinese racism in this context," Walia told the Tyee. "That's a big improvement on sometimes racist responses from trade unionists to foreign workers in the past. Mr. Hunt is right when he says that temporary workers are likely to be exploited."
Walia said that the broader context for the debate about foreign coal miners is a major shift in the Canadian workforce being engineered by the Harper government.
"Temporary foreign workers now represent the largest group of immigrants to Canada," she said. "The temporary worker programs are the flip side of outsourcing. Instead of sending Canadian work to the Third World to chase cheap labour, the programs bring in immigrant workers to work cheap and precariously in Canada. It just lowers the wage floor for everyone. We have a federal government that is committed to making labour more 'flexible' and profits higher for their friends in business."
Save climate, leave coal alone: activist
Kevin Washbrook, an activist with the environmental group StopCoal.ca, takes a different view from those held by union and government spokespeople. For Washbrook, the debate should really be about how to best and most effectively shut down current coal mines while maintaining a moratorium on opening up any new ones.
"We need to stop mining and burning coal if we are going to avoid a climatic disaster. Instead of forging ahead with blinders on and ignoring reality, we need to have a serious conversation as a society about how we're going to phase out coal mining and export and build a more sustainable economy. Here's our chance," he told The Tyee via email.
Washbrook noted that one of the primary responses that his group got from government when it called for a moratorium on new coal mines and the phase out of existing mines is that this will have an undue impact on people employed in the mining industry.
"The fact that Canadian Dehua is planning on bringing in up to 2,000 temporary Chinese workers to run their new mines puts the lie to that argument," he said.
"The obvious goal here is to get the dirty fuel out of the ground and over to Asia, regardless of the cost and benefits for B.C. and the planet. Rather than scrambling to import temp workers or open new mining programs at colleges we should be heaving a collective sigh, thankful that we've been handed an easy out for what will be the biggest transition we've ever had to make as a society. Time to move on!"
No One is Illegal's Walia agrees that environmental concerns need to be addressed in the coal mining debate.
"Many environmental activists recognize, as we do, that it is important to protect the environment and important to protect workers. That is the context in which we ought to be making our policy decisions," she said.
Local First Nation firmly opposed
When Premier Clark made her announcement of the China-backed coal mines from Beijing last year, resistance came swiftly from the West Moberly First Nation whose territory includes the site of one project, the Gething mine.
"A big part of the benefit will accrue to First Nations," Clark assured at the time, "It's just a question of negotiating how much."
But West Moberly Chief Roland Willson's stance was firm. "No ifs, ands or buts," he told the Globe and Mail. "The mine will have to find another place to go."
Willson made it clear that his people weren't opposed to development. But this project was slated to be situated right next to the band's summer camp. "The impacts of this mine to our way of life cannot be mitigated," stated Willson, "so our only option is to say no."
With labour, environmentalists and the local First Nation united in opposition to their source of employment, 2,000 Chinese temporary workers are headed down a deep hole of controversy dug by B.C.'s premier.