VANCOUVER - Controversial plans to hire 201 Chinese workers at a proposed mine in northern British Columbia have prompted Ottawa to announce a review of its entire foreign worker program, with the government suggesting the case has revealed deeper problems with a system designed to fill short-term labour shortages.

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley issued a statement Thursday saying the Conservative government isn't satisfied HD Mining Ltd. followed all the rules when it sought foreign worker permits for its proposed mine near Tumbler Ridge, B.C., which she said raises broader questions about the program.

"We are not satisfied with what we have learned about the process that led to permission for hundreds of foreign workers to gain jobs (at the HD Mining site)," the statement said.

"In particular, we are not satisfied that sufficient efforts were made to recruit or train Canadians interested in these jobs. ... It is clear to our government that there are some problems with the temporary foreign worker program."

HD Mining has hired the Chinese workers as part of exploration work at the proposed coal mine site, located about 200 kilometres west of Grande Prairie, Alta. The mine is awaiting an environmental assessment and has not yet been approved.

The company has said there aren't any qualified workers in Canada who can work at the mine, which will be using a method of underground mining that's not in use anywhere else in Canada. But labour unions and other critics have argued there are Canadians willing and able to take those jobs.

A B.C. union has also raised concerns about ads it says were posted to job boards in Canada that listed Mandarin as a language requirement, though the company has insisted applicants weren't required to speak the language.

Finley's statement highlighted the language issue as a particular concern.

"The requirement that applicants have skills in a foreign language does not appear to be linked to a genuine job requirement," Finley's statement said.

HD Mining declined comment on Thursday. The company is a partnership between China-based Huiyong Holding Group, which owns a 55 per cent stake, and Canadian Dehua International Mines Group Inc.

B.C.'s jobs minister, Pat Bell, who has been one of the project's most vocal supporters, did not make himself available for an interview Thursday. He issued a brief statement that ignored Finely's criticisms of the HD Mining project.

Bell said the province is focused on promoting mining development, and it's up to the federal government to address any problems with the temporary foreign worker program.

Bell has repeatedly defended HD Mining's decision to bring in foreign workers, and his ministry has released two fact sheets designed to debunk "myths" surrounding the project.

Those fact sheets said the company followed all of the necessary regulations and repeated the company's denial that Mandarin was job a requirement.

The review of the temporary foreign worker program is the latest to overshadow the coal mine project.

The B.C. government is looking into allegations recruiters in China asked potential applicants for fees, which is illegal under provincial law.

Ottawa is already investigating the foreign worker permits that were granted in this case, though Finley's statement did not say whether there has been any change to those permits. Her office said the permits remain under review.

And two unions have asked the Federal Court to throw out the permits.

It's not clear what the federal government's review of the foreign worker program will look like, or when it might be complete.

The program is designed to fill acute labour shortages.

A company seeking temporary foreign worker permits must prove there is a lack of qualified applicants in Canada and demonstrate it has already attempted to hire or train Canadians.

Labour groups and Opposition politicians have long criticized the program. Complaints range from arguments that a lack of oversight puts migrant workers at risk to allegations that companies use the permits to bring in cheap labour.

Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, said in a statement he welcomes the review, which his organization requested.

"This program is seriously flawed and is open to wide-spread abuse," he said. "The government was forced to lift the curtain on one case involving temporary foreign workers and found that our concerns about the entire program were obviously justified."

Sinclair said the program is about exploiting temporary workers who can be sent home on a moment's notice, not about immigration and nation building.

While workers can take full-time jobs and stay for four years, they don't have the right to raise families or even complain about safety concerns, he added.

Stephen Hunt of the United Steelworkers union, which has called on the federal government to rescind the permits for the Chinese miners, said the entire temporary foreign worker program should be abolished.

Hunt said the federal government should instead focus on training Canadians and attracting qualified immigrants.

"This supplants the immigration program, and where people used to be able to come to Canada and contribute to the fabric of Canada, this really, really undermines that," Hunt said in an interview.

"It's a way to suppress wages, labour costs, training. There are no safeguards."

The temporary foreign worker program has been the source of controversy several times in the past.

There have been concerns that live-in care workers and agricultural workers are particularly at risk of being abused or forced to work in unsafe working conditions.

Just last month, an Alberta man pleaded guilty to criminal negligence charges related to a head-on collision that killed four temporary foreign workers and injured another.

Earlier this year, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced changes designed to prevent employers linked to the sex trade from obtaining temporary foreign worker permits to hire strippers, escorts and massage parlour workers.

Also on HuffPost:

Loading Slideshow...
  • Labour Day: A Canadian Invention

    Few Canadians realize it, but Labour Day is as Canadian as maple bacon. It all began in 1872, when the Toronto Typographical Union went on strike to demand a nine-hour workday. When <i>Globe and Mail</i> chief George Brown had the protest organizers arrested, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald passed a law legalizing labour unions. Thus, a Conservative prime minister became a hero to the working class, and Canada became among the first countries to limit the workday, doing so decades before the U.S. The typographers' marches became an annual event, eventually being adopted by the U.S., becoming the modern day Labour Day.

  • The Winnipeg General Strike

    The end of World War I brought social instability and economic volatility to Canada. On May 15, 1919, numerous umbrella union groups went out on strike in Winnipeg, grinding the city to a halt. Protesters were attacked in the media with epithets such as "Bolshevik" and "Bohunk," but resistance from the media and government only strengthened the movement. In June, the mayor ordered the Mounties to ride into the protest, prompting violent clashes and the death of two protesters. After protest leaders were arrested, organizers called off the strike. But the federal mediator ended up ruling in favour of the protesters, establishing the Winnipeg General Strike as the most important strike in Canadian history, and a precursor to the country's modern labour movement.

  • The Regina Riot

    During the Great Depression, the only way for a single male Canadian to get government assistance was to join "relief camps" -- make-work projects set up by the federal government out of concern idle young men were a threat to the nation. The relief camps, with their poor work conditions, became breeding grounds for communists and other radicals. The "On-To-Ottawa Trek" was organized as a protest that would move from Vancouver across the country to Ottawa, to bring workers' grievances to the prime minister. The trek halted in Regina when Prime Minister R.B. Bennett promised to talk to protest organizers. When talks broke down, the RCMP refused to allow the protesters to leave Regina and head for Ottawa, and on June 26, 1935, RCMP riot officers attacked a crowd of protesters. More than 100 people were arrested and two killed -- one protester and one officer.

  • Bloody Sunday

    In May, 1938, unemployed men led by communist organizers occupied a post office and art gallery in downtown Vancouver, protesting over poor work conditions at government-run Depression-era "relief camps." In June, the RCMP moved in to clear out the occupiers, using tear gas inside the post office. The protesters inside smashed windows for air and armed themselves with whatever was available. Forty-two people, including five officers, were injured. When word spread of the evacuation, sympathizers marched through the city's East End, smashing store windows. Further protests against "police terror" would be held in the weeks to come.

  • Giant Mine Bombing

    In 1992, workers at Royal Oak Mines' Giant Mine in the Northwest Territories went on strike. On September 18, a bomb exploded in a mineshaft deep underground, killing nine replacement workers. Mine worker Roger Warren was convicted of nine counts of second-degree murder. The Giant Mine closed in 2004.

  • The Toronto G20

    The Canadian Labour Congress, representing numerous labour groups, participated in protests in Toronto during the G20 summit in June, 2010. When a handful of "Black Block" anarchists rioted through the city core, it brought an overwhelming police response that resulted in the largest mass arrests in Canadian history. More than 1,000 people were arrested, with most never charged with any crime. Numerous allegations of police brutality have been made, and the Toronto police are now the target of several multi-million dollar lawsuits. So far, two police officers have been charged with crimes relating to G20 policing, and charges against other police officers are also possible.

  • Occupy Canada

    When Vancouver-based magazine Adbusters suggested the public "occupy Wall Street" to protest corporate malfeasance, New Yorkers took the suggestion seriously, and occupied Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. Canadians followed suit, sparking copycat occupations in all major Canadian cities in September, 2011. By December, most of the occupations had been cleared, all of them non-violently. Though the protests achieved no specific goals, they did change the political conversation in North America. What their long-term legacy will be remains to be seen.