Temporary foreign worker program not working for British Columbia’s workforce or its economy

Even if HD Mining is innocent on all counts, what’s the economic benefit to British Columbians of a foreign-owned mine that exports mineral resources for ...

HD Mining’s attempt to staff four B.C. coal mines with Chinese miners has triggered the worst crisis in the chequered history of the Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW) program.

Employers’ organizations who championed the TFW program as crucial to fill empty jobs and overcome skills shortages have their work cut out for them.

All the claims made for the program – that it doesn’t displace Canadian workers, push down wages, open the door to unethical labour recruiters or impose second-class status on participants – have been shredded by the controversy.

The Chinese firm is fighting allegations that it failed to do a proper search for Canadian workers, is paying its Chinese workers less than the going rate and used illegal recruiting methods and fees to find underground miners in China.

HD, a subsidiary of Dehua, insists that all the necessary paperwork is in order. The first workers are already arriving in B.C.

The most likely outcome: HD has done things pretty much by the book and all the critics’ fears about the TFW program are validated.

The HD uproar torpedoed claims from federal and provincial officials that they were providing any enforcement of the program’s minimal rules.

Worse, it came right on the heels of the XL Foods fiasco, which crippled the Alberta beef sector with an E. coli outbreak that shut down the massive Brooks plant and wiped out 40% of Canada’s beef processing capacity at a single stroke. (Fifteen consumers were infected, but miraculously, no one died.)

The XL plant is staffed with 2,000 immigrant and temporary workers whose union is demanding whistleblower protection to allow them to speak out against unsafe practices without fear of deportation.

The outcry in B.C. has forced Ottawa and Victoria to undertake reviews of a program that added more than 45,000 temporary workers to the B.C. workforce last year alone. In the meantime, two B.C. unions are challenging HD Mining’s paperwork in court.

But even if HD Mining is innocent on all counts, what’s the economic benefit to British Columbians of a foreign-owned mine that exports mineral resources for a minimal royalty, using foreign workers who remit their earnings overseas and go home when the ore is gone?

“There is very little benefit,” said Steve Hunt, western regional director of the United Steelworkers, who was among those blowing the whistle on HD Mining.

A miner himself, Hunt is scathing about HD Mining’s “bad, bad deal.”

“Of course we have the workers,” Hunt said. “What we don’t have is the training.”

Employers have shirked their training and labour force development obligations, he argued, and now want cheap temporary workers to close the gap.

With nearly 500,000 workers in Canada on permits that will expire by 2015, the temporary foreign worker program requires a complete overhaul.

Now the Canadian Labour Congress is pushing Ottawa for a Migrant Worker Commission to provide protection and support for a labour force that is larger than the population of Newfoundland.

But even these proposals will fall short if federal and provincial laws don’t provide full legal protection to temporary workers, combined with access to permanent residency and immigration.

At the top end of the scale, Canada is skimming highly trained workers from developing countries and subsidizing our economy at their expense.

At the other end of the scale, many Canadian employers are using temporary workers as a captive labour force that can’t walk out when wages stagnate or working conditions deteriorate.

Neither strategy supports the development of a strong economy.

With both main B.C. parties ready to fight a provincial election on the issues of jobs and training, employers benefiting from the current program will need some very creative arguments to defend the status quo. •

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