The investigation was launched because it is against the Employment Standards Act to charge a foreign worker a fee for information about employment or help them find a job in the province. Workers also cannot be forced to pay back any costs associated with recruitment to the company or agency.
"It is a serious allegation," said Jobs Minister Pat Bell of a news release issued by Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour.
"I hope he has substance to it. If he does, we will get to the bottom of it."
But that's not good enough for the B.C. Federation of Labour, which has been a vocal critic of the decision earlier this month to allow foreign, temporary workers into B.C. coal mines.
“The only sensible thing to do is to suspend the permits and conduct a full investigation,” Sinclair said in the release.
“We have a duty to the unemployed Canadians who are looking for work and willing to train, and we have a duty to ensure that when foreign workers come to Canada, they do so with their rights protected, not trampled on.”
Sinclair alleged the jobs weren't advertised fairly at going rates to workers in Canada and recruiters were asking applicants "to pay a modern-day head tax."
Sinclair's demands came after the B.C. online publication The Tyee said its reporter had posed as a Chinese miner, contacted two of three companies that placed ads on a Chinese website similar to Craigslist called Bai Xing, and was told the workers must pay the recruiters a $12,500 fee in exchange for the job in Canada.
"We are an employment agency and we need to charge you an agent fee," wrote the recruiter in a conversation in Chinese via QQ, a Chinese version of MSN Messenger.
"Before you leave China, you must pay us 30,000 yuan. When you live in Canada, you must pay the rest — 50,000 yuan."
According to China's state-run media outlet Xinhua, a coal miner in China earns about 1,000 yuan a month, making the upfront agency fee two-and-a-half-year's salary for workers who accept the offer.
The recruiter said the employer will deduct the remaining recruiter's fee from workers' paycheques, about C$400 a month.
HD Mining International has won temporary foreign-work permits for 201 Chinese miners for a six-to-eight-month stint as part of its efforts to develop its Murray River coal operation near Tumbler Ridge.
Bell said the miners will be working underground to extract bulk samples. If the mine is approved, it won't be in operation until 2015.
"So you'll see six to eight months of activity right now, and then it will be shut down and if the coal meets the standards that HD is looking for, then you will see the construction of the formal mine. Certainly our goal will be to make sure there are British Columbians (working there.)"
A second company, Vancouver-based Canadian Dehua International, founded and run by a former Chinese government official, also plans to apply for Chinese workers under Ottawa's Temporary Foreign Worker program, Bell confirmed.
Both companies say they have nothing to do with the recruitment ads in question in China.
The translated recruiting ad included the promise of "a possibility of immigrating to Canada" and the ability to "sponsor your family to Canada, too."
The ads were placed on the employment pages of the site for the Chinese provinces of Shanxi, Henan and Sichuan, but agents did not know which mine they were recruiting for, only that they were in Canada.
The advertisement offered miners jobs in Canadian mines at a rate of $25 to $30 per hour, but the recruiter said in the message exchange that the wage is actually between $22 and $25 per hour.
The agent said applicants need a mining certificate or a reference from a company to be accepted, but the training and letter from the company could be provided for an extra 1,800 yuan ($180).
The miners' presence in Canada is dependent on their employer and they will live in dorms, must be able to speak 100 English words and are allowed to do what they please when not at work.
The recruiter said the 100 English words can be taught for an additional 1,000 yuan ($160).
The recruiter said he was working for a British Columbia-based company called the Canada CIBS Investment and Trade Group.
The recruiter also mentioned the company will be searching for workers for a gold mine in Saskatchewan shortly, and those positions will cost workers 98,000 yuan each ($15,500).
A person who answered the telephone at CIBS offices in Vancouver said the Canadian operation had no knowledge of the ads and referred a journalist's questions to the company's office in Chengdu, China. Calls to that office were not returned.
Spokesmen for the ministries for immigration and the economy in Saskatchewan said they are not aware of any company planning to bring in foreign workers for a gold mine.
Jimmy Yan, an information officer for Access Pro Bono who helps Chinese immigrants with legal issues in Canada, said he isn't surprised at reports Chinese workers are paying fees to recruiters.
But considering China's overall safety record for underground mining, Yan said he is concerned about who is in charge of the operations.
"Why would we work with a country which is the worst mining producers" in terms of safety? asked Yan.
He said Canadian authorities typically would be on site enforcing Canadian safety standards in the mine, but also said he fears Chinese workers could be injured due to communication gaps, such as not being able to read instructions in English.
He said many of the miners who would come to Canada would likely be considered the best miners in their field and part of the lure of coming to Canada is the increased safety.
Frank Everitt, president of United Steelworkers Local 1-424, said the claim B.C. doesn't have the expertise to run the mines does not excuse the recruitment of foreign workers.
"I just think it's shameful. I think there are enough people in northern B.C. that they could recruit for the mine," said Everitt.
"It's not that we haven't done it, it's just that nobody has put the resources to it and it's a scam to bring guest workers in."
Everitt said the average base salary for a miner in the province is $34 an hour, and the union has said the companies are just trying to undercut local miners to pocket more money.
The Chinese recruiter was promising a top wage of $25 per hour.
Dehua president and founder Liu Naishun said he is providing jobs for Canadians and said his company had nothing to do with the recruitment ads. He said he's never heard of Canada CIBS Investment and Trade Inc.
"The coal mine workers hired by Dehua's co-operation partners are all hired from their Chinese coal mines and all of them have at least three years of experience in the underground coal mines," wrote Liu in an email translated from Chinese to English.
"These employees don't need to pay any agent fee."
But he defended the move to bring in Chinese miners.
"It is possible that the worst coal mines are in China, but it is also possible that coal mine companies with the best mining equipment and management are also in China," he wrote.
"I believe that importing underground coal mine workers from outside Canada is what we have to do at present and it is a short-term approach. Our long term strategy is to train local Canadians to be qualified underground coal miners."