VANCOUVER - Two labour unions want a federal court to overturn temporary work permits issued to Chinese workers at a coal mine in northern British Columbia, arguing that there are unemployed Canadians who could fill the jobs.

Permits have been granted under the federal Temporary Foreign Worker Program to 200 Chinese workers to conduct preliminary work at HD Mining International Ltd.'s Murray River mine near Tumbler Ridge, B.C.

The company has said it was not able to find workers in Canada with the specialized skills necessary.

"Poppycock," said Lee Loftus, president of the B.C. Building Trades union.

"We have skilled people that have operated underground equipment, we have open-pit mining people, we have all the types of mining that take place in the world available here. We may not know the brand name of the piece of equipment that they bring with them, but we certainly understand the process."

The court action filed by the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 115 and the Construction and Specialized Workers Union Local 1611 says HD Mining received 300 applications despite the fact the company didn't advertise widely and imposed "unreasonable and unnecessary requirements on Canadian applicants."

The documents also accuse the company of paying wages to the Chinese workers that are about $10 an hour below the prevailing wages in the industry in Canada, and no benefits.

The unions say the permits for the Murray River workers were approved in violation of the federal regulations, which stipulate that foreign workers can only be used in situations where a labour shortage exists.

"We're concerned that there are companies from outside of Canada that are bringing their money to the table to buy resources and we want to make sure that, whether we agree or disagree with regards to how those resources are removed from Canada, that there's benefits to Canadians no matter what, and this isn't just a benefit to a corporate community that takes the resource and the employment opportunities," Loftus said.

The unions want the court to declare the permits invalid. The application also seeks an order preventing Human Resources and Skills Development Canada and Citizenship and Immigration from issuing any further offers of employment or permits to HD Mining until the court matter is resolved.

The mining firm had no comment. HD Mining is a partnership between China-based Huiyong Holding Group, which owns a 55 per cent stake in the mine, and Canadian Dehua International Mines Group Inc.

The company has said before that the Murray River mine uses a long-wall technique not used at any other operation in Canada and, therefore, there are no workers with the needed skills.

In long-wall mining, coal is extracted along a wall in large blocks and then carried out on a conveyor belt. The majority of underground mines in North America use the room-and-pillar method, in which rooms are carved out of the coal bed.

The unions say there is very little training required for long-wall mining.

While the Federal Court decides if it will hear the case, the Murray River project is undergoing an environmental assessment.

The company has been allowed to continue with preliminary sampling in the interim and the temporary workers have arrived from China to work.

Human Resources announced last week that it is reviewing whether the permit applications met federal requirements. The department is responsible for assessing the labour market with respect to temporary foreign workers.

"Canadians must always have the first crack at job opportunities. As we have indicated previously, we are concerned with the process that led to this decision. That is why we are looking into this case to ensure that the appropriate rules were followed. However, we do not comment on matters before the courts," Alyson Queen, spokeswoman for Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, said in an email.

There have also been allegations that recruiters in China demanded illegal fees from the temporary workers, which HD Mining has denied. The B.C. Employment Standards Branch is investigating those allegations.

The Murray River project is just one of 10 coal mines in the environmental assessment process in British Columbia, where coal is making a comeback.In 1999, 25 million tonnes of coal produced in B.C. was worth $797 million.

The figure jumped dramatically 12 years later when 27 million tonnes put $5.7 billion in provincial coffers.

There are 11 coal mines operating in province, according to the Mines Ministry.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier story incorrectly reported Cochrane's first name was Bruce.

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