VICTORIA - The United Steelworkers says it has dug up what it calls close ties between the Chinese government and the reportedly privately-run coal mine in northeastern British Columbia embroiled in a foreign-worker controversy.
The union released a report Wednesday that suggests HD Mining International Ltd. — the firm developing the proposed Murray River mine near Tumbler Ridge — has ownership links to the government in China, where workers receive low wages in unsafe conditions.
A union report titled “Who Owns Huiyong Holdings and other Questions on Planned Chinese-Owned Coal Mines in B.C.” examines the ownership of Huiyong Holdings Group, which owns Huiyong Holdings (BC) Ltd., and holds 55 per cent of HD Mining.
The union's report claims Huiyong Holdings is a state-run company operated by the Chinese government and bases its conclusions on the work of one its researchers, who was assisted by "experts" in China.
Among the evidence, the research paper found very little information about Huiyong Holdings, finding no website in either English or Chinese, despite Huiyong's claims to operate several mines in China. There is also little available information on where those mines are.
However, the union paper noted a briefing note for Jobs Minister Pat Bell that referred to a meeting Bell had with Ye Qing, who is described in the note as Huiyong's "chief consultant."
"In fact, Ye Qing is a very highly-connected, very senior career apparatchik in the Chinese government and corporate world — indeed he is as high-level an insider as one might hope to become within the Chinese Communist Party," the research paper states.
The union's document notes a February 2012 paper for the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, which says the top decision-making body within the Chinese government selects the heads of state-owned corporations.
Over half the chairs of major state-owned enterprises hold the position of minister in the Chinese government, wrote Beijing-based consultant Margaret Cornish for the council.
The union's paper concludes that, based on the Chinese experts they contacted, "it is normal for such firms to be controlled by the state."
However, HD Mining issued a statement Wednesday saying it is a Canadian company owned by Huiyong Holdings (BC), which holds a 55 per cent interest, and Canadian Dehua Lvliang Ltd., which holds a 40 per cent minority stake.
The statement said Huiyong Holdings is 100-per-cent owned by Huiyong Holdings China and that, in turn, is a private company that has nine operating mines in China and "all of these mines are safe and efficient mines."
"HD Mining does not understand what these allegations have to do with the union's challenge to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, and will continue to defend that litigation," the statement said.
Steve Hunt, Western Canada director for the Steelworkers' union, said Wednesday the union employed an investigator in China who has some knowledge of what goes on in China.
"We just searched the best we could possibly search and we couldn't find very much detail on the company at all, other than some of the players," he said.
"We're trying to find out something about the mines that they have ... What are they experts in? It's hard to do because we can't find anything about them."
Hunt said while the mines must operate according to Canadian safety standards, the union is concerned the Chinese miners may not be familiar with their rights should the mining company operate inappropriately. Hunt said the workers are essentially "indentured" to the company.
The union has been embroiled in a court battle to overturn 201 temporary foreign work permits allowing Chinese miners to come to Canada on the grounds there aren't Canadians qualified to do the work at the proposed Tumbler Ridge-area facility.
HD Mining's website says it brings state-of-the-art, high-efficiency, long-wall mining technology and new training initiatives for underground miners to the first underground coal mining project approved in British Columbia in recent years.
Hunt said the B.C. government has refused to make public the details of the Chinese mining deals, which came after Asian economic missions by Jobs Minister Pat Bell and Premier Christy Clark.
He said the union report concludes the government either didn’t know or didn’t tell British Columbians about the suggested close ties between Chinese-owned coal mines in the Tumbler Ridge area and the Chinese government.
"The questions we asked the premier are, did you know about it?" said Hunt. "How deeply did you investigate this company? If their expertise is based on what happens in mining in China, that's the type of expertise we don't need here. They kill a whole lot of people and hurt a whole lot more in China every year."
Bell issued a statement Wednesday calling the Steelworkers' report "speculative."
"We have always maintained that British Columbians will be first in line for jobs at any new mine openings in our province," said Bell's statement.
"Our goal is, and has always been, to create investment and to promote further mining development in B.C.. Due diligence is conducted on any company investing in B.C. to ensure project and economic viability."
The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 115 and Local 1611 of the Construction and Specialized Workers Union lost their court effort to get an injunction to halt HD Mining's plan to bring 60 workers to B.C. from China to join 15 already here.
However, a judicial review of the foreign worker permits granted to 201 workers will proceeded in the new year.
The union' allege HD Mining wants to bring the workers to Canada and pay them lower wages than what Canadian miners earn for comparable work, depressing the labour market and causing irreparable harm.
The unions say qualified Canadians should be hired to do the work at the Murray River mine or the Chinese miners should be granted landed immigrant status to Canada rather than temporary work status.
HD Mining's website states the company is committed to the Murray River project, which will create 600 direct jobs and 700 indirect jobs through the construction and operating phases. It states the company has already invested $50 million on local goods, services and contractors