Work at the Murray River underground coal mining project in Tumbler Ridge B.C. is slated to begin within a few weeks. The initial 200 positions will be filled by foreign temporary workers even while the jobless rate in Northern B.C. sits at 10.5 per cent, higher than the provincial average of 6.8 per cent.
Much has been made of the provincial government’s move to strengthen ties with China and bring investment and development dollars in the B.C. economy. “Our exports to China are already more than $2.8 billion… that’s just one of the reasons why continuing to open up trade with China has been a major focus of the BC Jobs Plan,” said Premier Christy Clark on Oct. 9, 2012.
But there is a training gap to be overcome if that jobs plan is to put Canadians to work. HD Mining International, the company that will begin bulk sampling at the Tumbler Ridge project, advertised in B.C. and Canada-wide for experienced underground miners, and found none. Under the federal temporary foreign worker program, employers must demonstrate that there are no Canadians available to fill job vacancies before they are permitted to import labour.
HD Mining published employment advertisements on various national job boards as well as in the federal jobs bank. Apparently no qualified applicant responded even though some of the positions were for ‘helpers’ positions. All 201 initial positions will be filled under the foreign temporary workers program.
“The notion that Canadian workers don’t have the skills to do mining work is preposterous,” says Mark Olsen, President of the Bargaining Council of British Columbia Building Trades Unions. “The fact is, there are men and women right here in B.C. who are trained, ready, willing and able to move into these jobs at a moment’s notice.”
The United Steelworkers (USW) has criticized the posted job offerings as having been designed to exclude Canadian workers. Job postings included a minimum of one year’s experience for a helpers position as well as Mandarin being listed among the preferences and requirements for the position.
The province responded that ‘Mandarin was not a required language for any of the jobs,’ and technically, ‘Mandarin’ was not listed as a requirement. Stephen Hunt, USW Director, asked how discouraging it would be for a job searcher to see Mandarin listed as, ‘if not a qualification, then at least as a consideration’ for a posting.
Hunt also expressed concern that the advertised position required one year’s underground experience. “A helper’s position is an entry level, learning position,” he said, and it was extremely unusual for an entry level position like that to require one years’ experience in an underground mine.
New Democrat mines critic Doug Donaldson was concerned with the larger trend of bringing temporary workers into the province. “Analysts have been warning about the skills labour shortage or years… plans to bring in 201 temporary foreign workers [to Tumbler Ridge] only brought focus onto this issue,” he said on Oct. 12.
The BC Mining Human Resource Task Force has projected that the provincial labour force will need to fill over 16,700 positions between 2012 and 2022. In Northern B.C. the hiring requirements will exceed 2000 workers.
“No miner is born a miner,” said Hunt. “You need to be trained.”
But underground mine training is not available in B.C. The College of New Caledonia offers mining and drilling programs throughout Northern B.C., but they train for surface mining operations. Ann McCormick, supervisor of CNC’s Fort St. James campus said, “CNC’s mining certificate program trains people to work in entry level positions in open pit mines, like [those at] Mount Milligan or Endako.” McCormick has been following the Tumbler Ridge developments and has been encouraging the province to work with local colleges to ‘invest in mining specific training’.
The Burns Lake CNC campus offers both a mining certificate and a driller’s helper certificate. Both programs are very successful and are in their second year running, but they train people for surface mine work, not underground.
The province also emphasized that the short-term nature of these positions. “The company applied for and received a bulk-sample permit… This is work required in advance of moving forward with the project,” reads a statement released by the province on Oct. 16.
“These are very short term jobs, six to eight months,” said minister Pat Bell to the CBC on Oct. 19. “The company was unable to convince people at other operating plants to come and take those positions given that they’re short term.”
NDP Member of parliament for Skeena-Bulkley Nathan Cullen sees a deeper issue than the hiring of 200 workers for temporary positions. “This is going to be a big issue as communities that pushed for certain projects assuming that those projects would be filled by Canadian workers are now learning that might not be the case,” he said. “I don’t know how you can call this an economic recovery if the people going to work are from other countries.”