VANCOUVER - The Chinese mining firm at the centre of a controversial plan to use temporary foreign workers in a British Columbia coal mine has launched a two-pronged attack, threatening both a human rights complaint and legal action.
HD Mining distributed two separate letters to the media Thursday, one accusing the United Steelworkers Union of discrimination and the other putting the government on notice it may pursue claims for civil damages after federal ministers made public statements about the company.
The firm's Murray River project near Tumbler Ridge, B.C., 140 kilometres west of Grande Prairie, Alta., has drawn fire for bringing in temporary foreign workers instead of hiring Canadians. It's also currently facing a judicial review in which two unions are seeking to prevent the company from bringing more workers to Canada.
In a letter sent to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, one of the 17 Chinese workers already at the mine — Huizhi Li — includes screenshots of leaflets and other content on the Steelworkers' website that he claims violates his rights.
"They are likely to create contempt for Chinese persons and in particular Chinese mining workers," Huizhi said in the letter, dated Monday and written on HD Mining letterhead.
His letter goes on to say the information alleges Chinese miners will work for reduced wages and in substandard conditions, which denies Canadians opportunity to those jobs.
Steve Hunt, the union's western Canadian director, said the accusation is bizarre, because his union has only ever been fighting for workers' rights.
"I don't think it's well-founded, obviously. It's something that we expected all along," he said in an interview. "When all else fails pull the racial card out and suggest we have something untowards any worker coming in to Canada."
Among the evidence submitted in the letter is a Steelworkers' press release that contends temporary foreign workers are exploited through low wages, no benefits and little workplace protection.
Company spokeswoman Jody Shimkus said she couldn't speak to how the worker's complaint arose, but said it was "supported" by the company. She noted the accusations workers would be paid reduced wages is not true.
Workers will be paid between $25 and $40 per hour, with total yearly compensation between $84,000 and $113,000 including pay, benefits, housing and food, she said.
"These workers are not being underpaid."
She added the company is spending $50 million on Canadian goods, services and contractors, meaning it will be a "huge benefit" to the province.
Also Thursday, the company emailed copies of a letter sent by its lawyers to federal deputy justice minister William Pentney citing concerns actions by two federal ministers may influence the judicial review.
The International Union of Operating Engineers and the Construction and Specialized Workers Union want an injunction preventing more workers from coming to Canada until a court can hear their broader legal challenge. They plan to argue the company's temporary foreign worker permits should be tossed altogether.
A group of 60 more miners are slated to arrive from China this weekend, and Shimkus said nothing has changed those plans.
The lawyer's letter states the company will pursue any claims for civil damages that may have been caused by parties that harmed HD Mining's reputation or financial interests.
It cites comments in early November by Human Resources Minister Diane Finley in which she said the government is "not satisfied" with what it had learned about the process where the mining company was granted 201 workers' permits. She also suggested that insufficient efforts were made to recruit Canadians.
"Our clients are concerned that this statement may have been made for political purposes, to distance the Government from a decision which had received negative media attention," the letter says.
It also notes comments made mid-week by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, calling their timing "highly inappropriate."
In one instance, he indicated that the labour market opinions are under review.
The company has previously said HD Mining wants to hire Canadians as soon as is feasible, but that can't be done until the skills necessary to work in the unique mine are taught to Canadians. It is currently collaborating with Northern Lights College to make training available.
Hunt said the Steelworkers have also filed a health and safety complaint against the company.
"We think it's impossible for these workers to work safely, with knowledge of only 100 words of English. That is just looking for a disaster."
The federal government has undertaken to review the entire temporary foreign workers' permitting process.
On Wednesday, the unions released documents that showed HD Mining expects it could be four years before any Canadian miners are hired and more than 14 years before all the foreign temporary workers return home.