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What HD Mining dispute says about Chinese labour: The SinoFile

The boiling discourse on the Chinese hires in a Canadian coal mining project shouldn't only be a South-Park-style They took our jobs.


Murray River, near the site of the HD Mining coal extraction project (RPlunk).

British Columbia labour unions are locked in battle with Ottawa over foreign worker allowances granted to a company the syndicalists say unfairly rejected qualified Canadian workers. 

Amid a slew of analysts, furious that a Canadian natural resource development project is not employing Canadians, few are questioning the lot of Chinese laborers – on this and countless other similar projects, where Chinese enterprises operating abroad import relatively pliable, cheaper labor from the People's Republic.

Ordering out

British Columbia chapters of the Construction and Specialized Workers Union and the International Union of Operating Engineers are seeking judicial review after Ottawa granted BC-based, Chinese-owned HD Mining International Ltd. permits for over 200 Chinese workers on a local coal extraction project. The enterprise rejected scores of Canadian applicants to the positions – some of whom reportedly had decades of experience.

HD Mining announced last week it would repatriate 16 Chinese Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW's) hired to work on its Murray River Project in northeast BC. The announcement came just days after the company agreed to submit around 300 rejected Canadian resumes to the unions, to resolve a legal dispute over the hires. 

The 16 Chinese nationals were hired to work on a $300 million portion of the project, set to extract a 100,000-ton sample of coal from the area surrounding Tumbler Ridge, BC. 

HD Mining has maintained that no Canadians were qualified or interested in the positions.

“In the absence of being able to find Canadians qualified and interested to do this work, we need to know we can rely on the two-year temporary foreign worker authorizations we received,” said the company's chair, Penggui Yan, in a release, published after the TFWs' repatriation.

But the unions maintain that many of the rejected Canadian applicants were well qualified for the positions and decry a situation where they say natural resources are not enriching local communities. 

Undercutting the competition, Chinese style

One of the reasons why HD Mining may have outsourced its labor to China is not a particular affinity of Chinese-owned companies for Chinese labourers, but the fact that Chinese workers are often willing to accept lower pay than their international counterparts. 

The repatriated Chinese workers were paid wages significantly lower than their Canadian national counterparts, according to one business journal report, citing union sources.

It's happened across Africa: Chinese companies bring in slews of Chinese laborers to the dismay of the local workforce.

Reporting a story on a Chinese-built highway in Algeria years ago, I was astounded by the juxtaposition of Chinese and Algerian labour. The project had seen non-payment of wages and dangerous labor conditions. Only the Algerian labourers went on strike when they seemed to have found working conditions unreasonable. 

If Algerian labourers are unwieldy in a country that suffers from government opacity and a habitual crack down on civil society, imagine how troublesome Canadians must seem, with their signature sense of entitlement to social justice. 

Independent trade unions are forbidden in China – although there have been various informal instances of organization in individual enterprises.

The Canadian unions' reports on HD Mining show that Canada may be the new Africa in China's quest for natural resources to fuel its ever-booming economy, as far as imported labor is concerned. The kind of social justice that empowers unions to fight for workers' rights in Canada ironically is a  foreign concept in the ostensibly socialist People's Republic.  

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