Opinion

Miners Could Have Been Trained Here Easily

Longwall coal mining is hardly the rare, elite skill politicians want us to believe.

By Bill Tieleman 30 Oct 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at weststar@telus.net or visit his blog.

"We are replacing people with 25 to 45 years of experience with people that have zero days of experience." -- Jimmy Brock, U.S. coal mining firm CONSOL Energy

If you don't think Chinese miners should be coming to British Columbia as temporary foreign workers in new coal mines, get ready to be really angry.

That's because the federal Conservative government will ratify a foreign investment agreement this week, ensuring even more Chinese takeovers of Canada’s natural resources -- and jobs.

And if you doubt that China-owned coal companies had no choice but to import their own workers to B.C. because no trained, experienced miners are available, prepare to get downright furious.

The reason is simple. Neither the coal companies nor the federal or B.C. governments wanted to train Canadian workers -- even though it’s nowhere near as hard as they claim.

"We require temporary foreign workers because we are introducing a highly mechanized form of longwall mining to the province. There's currently no active long-wall mining going on in Canada or B.C.," says Jody Shimkus, vice-president of HD Mining International, one of the companies involved in developing up to four coal mines.

And Shimkus would know. Less than one year ago she was assistant deputy minister for B.C.'s mines ministry itself.

While B.C. public service guidelines require senior government officials to wait one year before accepting employment with companies they had "substantial involvement" with, Shimkus said in a Friday interview that she did not deal with HD Mining in her ADM position.

Shimkus also said she was "unaware" of the government guidelines.

But is longwall mining that rare and complicated? No. Is China the only source of longwall miners? No. Just the cheapest.

US training legions of longwall miners

In fact, half of all U.S. coal mines use longwall methods, extracting 166 million tons in 2009 that way.

The largest U.S. underground coal producer -- Consul Energy -- constantly trains miners in longwall techniques at a new $12 million centre in southwest Pennsylvania because that's how it extracts 88 per cent of its coal.

West Virginia and Pennsylvania also have a Mining Technology and Training Center that provides new and inexperienced miner training courses with 240 hours of classroom and hands-on training.

And since just 2005, the Kentucky Coal Academy has trained 55,000 new and incumbent miners.

The reason for training so many miners is obvious. There is a great need and the job pays well.

"We hire 1,000 to 1,500 employees a year," says Jimmy Brock, CONSOL Energy's chief operating officer for coal. "We will find miners because a mining job is a good-paying job with great benefits."

“I call it a single-household job. One parent can work while the other one takes care of the family," Brock said.

Saying no to good local jobs

In fact, being a Pennsylvania coal miner pays very well, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, making an average of $78,061 per year compared to an average private industry worker's $46,664.

But the Chinese coal miners coming to B.C. for "mine development" won't be making anywhere near that much money, with HD Mining advertising heavy duty equipment mechanic wages in the salary range of $25 to $32 an hour. At 2,000 hours work per year that would be $50,000 to $64,000 for a skilled trades job -- and that's not likely to be the lowest paid position if a mine opens.

And despite the international controversy importing Chinese workers has created, Canadian Kailuan Dehua Mines -- a "co-partnership company" with HD Mining -- still has ads posted on the Mining Association of B.C. website looking for miners which state that: "Mandarin Chinese is definitely an asset" in getting hired at one of its planned B.C. coal mines.

There's no excuse for importing temporary foreign workers given that it has been well known since 2007 that Chinese coal companies were planning on developing mines in northeast B.C.

And in 2008 a provincial task force recommended creating a new underground miner-training program to deal with an expected shortage.

But unlike in the U.S., absolutely nothing was done in B.C. to meet that need.

Instead, the governments of both B.C. and Canada and have abdicated their responsibilities.

And now the Conservative federal government is about to ratify the Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA) with China that will make such travesties even more common.  [Tyee]

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