Unions challenge Temporary Foreign Worker program for mine in Tumbler Ridge

Brian Cochrane, Business Manager, IUOE Local 115
 
Over the past several weeks, the thorny issue of inviting temporary foreign workers (TFWs) to fill good-paying jobs in B.C.’s resource sector has been debated in a federal courtroom. Two major trade unions – including my own – launched an application in the Federal Court for a judicial review of a specific TFW decision. Foremost among the many questions we asked is how did the federal government allow qualified Canadians to be so easily overlooked, and grant more than 200 foreign nationals a virtual ‘free pass’ into the Canadian job market?
 
The International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), Local 115, and the Construction and Specialized Workers Union (Labourers), Local 1611 represent the bulk of skilled workers required on mine sites. We are therefore well-positioned to request that the court overturn decisions by the federal government to issue labour market opinions (LMOs) which open the door to HD Mining International to bring more than 200 foreign workers in to work in their mine near Tumbler Ridge, BC.
 
We have been successful in court so far; we have been granted standing by the court to challenge the federal government on these LMOs, and we have succeeded in forcing them to release more than 85 pages of secret documents, despite their strong objections. We are now continuing to seek a full judicial review of the TFW program.
 
The LMO process was initially designed to ensure Canadians have the first opportunity to obtain available jobs, and to further ensure that prevailing Canadian wage rates, working conditions and safety standards are respected. Unfortunately, we believe none of these conditions were adequately met in this case. But in this case, HD Mining International has publicly acknowledged that they received more than 300 applications for posted jobs, yet didn’t hire a single Canadian, claiming none were qualified. This is not believable or acceptable.
 
For one thing, Canada is known world-wide for its extensive mining industry, both underground and open pit.  For another, HD Mining International has known for 10 years they were going to need miners. That’s ample time to ramp up a recruitment and training program among Canadians for those jobs if there was a worker shortage.
 
Our two unions are strong supporters of Canada’s mining industry.  Thousands of our members across the country have good-paying jobs working in mines.  We’re carrying the fight for these jobs on behalf of all qualified Canadian workers, including those who choose to join a union and those who do not. We are fighting to make the federal government accountable in their decision-making to all Canadians. 
 
Think of the possibilities.  If a business is allowed to recruit its entire workforce from outside the country, why would they not also fill a variety of other business needs via international procurement? Equipment contracts and servicing, administrative supplies and support, food and beverages, entertainment – what other Canadian business opportunities might be lost because of ‘offshore sourcing’ preferences? The impact of TFWs could have far-reaching implications for the Canadian economy and in particular, the world of work. 
 
When jobs aren’t adequately advertised; when qualified Canadians are overlooked; when wages are lower than market rates and when working conditions aren’t clearly specified – any one of these contraventions should signal a red flag to all wage-earning Canadians. Without an open and transparent LMO process that adheres to a set of well-reasoned regulations, each TFW who arrives in this country effectively deprives a Canadian of the opportunity to access a good-paying job. 
 
Should Canadian workers have to compete for jobs in Canada with workers from other countries whose standard of living is a fraction of our own, and for whom our minimum wage is a good day’s pay?  That dynamic has virtually squeezed Canadians out of jobs in agriculture, and it is now becoming a factor in the fast food and home care industries.  Will this trend creep into other job classifications in the next 10, 20, 30 years? There is a public policy question here that deserves discussion and a political solution involving all levels of government in this country.
 
In the short term, we are disappointed that we have been met with such resistance from both the Federal Government and the Company. If these Labour Market Opinions have met the criteria – prove it. If there has been a mistake – fix it.  For the government to continue to defend a flawed system which works against the rights of Canadian workers is simply wrong, and needs to be corrected.