Letter to Stephen Harper, Christy Clark outlines our position on the use of Temporary Foreign Workers in the mining industry in BC.

Bargaining Council of BC Building Trade Unions

October 15, 2012

Right Hon. Stephen Harper
House of Commons,
Ottawa, ON K1A 0A6

Hon. Christy Clark
PO Box 9041 STN PROV GOVT
Victoria BC V8W 9E1

Dear Sirs, Mesdames.

We represent the views of the 15 Unions representing B.C.’s 35,000 craft construction workers, including a number which play a unique role in BC’s mining industry. These unions include underground miners and support workers in the Labourers Union, Operating Engineers, Teamsters, Electricians, Bricklayers, Ironworkers, Sheet Metal Workers, Insulators, Cement Masons, Culinary Workers, Plumbers, Painters, Boilermakers and Carpenters.

We want to register our grave concerns about the uses and abuses of the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program as it relates to projects in British Columbia. We are concerned both with the administration and application of this program by the Conservative Government in Ottawa, as well as the uncritical support and encouragement the program receives from the Liberal Government in British Columbia. This letter is particularly concerned with the recent announcement that 200 foreign workers will arrive in BC from China next week to work in coal mines in north-east British Columbia. According to news reports, they are to be followed by up to 2,000 workers from China over the next few years as the coal mines in that area ramp up production.

We believe this mass importation of labour is completely unnecessary and is simply a strategy to employ lower-paid workers who are compliant with the culture of coal mining in China. The coal mining in that country is patently unsafe and the industry there shows little regard for the life, health and wellbeing of the workers in that country.

The abuses which companies commit here in BC using Temporary Foreign Workers are very well known to us in the construction industry. We have dealt with this issue regarding the RAV Transit Canada Line to Richmond, regarding construction of the Golden Ears Bridge, regarding construction of the two tunnels in the Seymour Watershed in North Vancouver related to the water treatment plants there, and to other instances in construction and other fields. We have learned from bitter experience that abuses of these workers are more the rule than the exception. Indeed, our Unions have spent many hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past decade alone, picking up the pieces from the damage done by employers with the complicity of the BC and federal governments.

The notion that Canadian workers don’t have the skills to do mining work is preposterous. A good part of this country’s economy has been based on mining, stretching back well into the last two centuries. As processes and technologies have changed in mining, as they have in all phases of work including construction, our workers have adapted, have re-trained, and have increased their trade qualifications to keep well ahead of the technological curve.

As Craig McInnes pointed out so eloquently in his column in the Vancouver Sun last Thursday, the Tumbler Ridge mining plans have been known for five years or more, plenty of time to familiarize a cadre of BC workers with any new equipment or processes required. Our people are trained, experienced and ticketed tradespeople. Learning to operate a new piece of equipment is not rocket science for them.

Before the start of the Temporary Foreign Workers program Canada’s unions were routinely consulted as to whether they had the trained resources available to do certain kinds of work. That no longer happens. Typically, a company will run an ad in a few papers seeking workers and quoting a low-ball wage. When nobody steps forward this becomes the evidence they offer up to the TFW program in support of their application to import workers from aboard.

On the wage issue, neither the federal or provincial government has a mechanism in place to verify the wages these foreign workers actually receive. From our experience they are charged for accommodations, food, clothing, transportation and anything else the company can think of to minimize their actual take-home pay. A rate that begins in the $20 an hour range soon bottoms out at around the BC minimum wage of $10.25 an hour.

The fact is, there are men and women right here in BC who are trained, ready, willing and able to move into these jobs at a moment’s notice, and BC’s unions could be the agent for putting these workers to work, if we were given the opportunity.

Most often, these workers for construction and mining jobs are recruited from low-wage, high-unemployment parts of the world. Those workers are grateful for any job, particularly one that pays more than they can earn in their home country, but still well below the prevailing rates of pay in British Columbia.

Aside from unemployed members on our union lists, we are ignoring the legitimate wishes and needs of Canadian women, First Nations workers, and our young people, who are all looking for the chance to participate more fully in the economic life of Canada. In their haste to show favour to these large international companies who are coming here to exploit our mineral resources, our governments are turning their backs on these groups of workers in Canada who should be filling those jobs.

Canada’s governments are also ignoring a golden opportunity to take advantage of the unique capacity of BC’s Unions to recruit, train and re-train apprentices and journeypersons as required. Most Unions have training officers and state-of-the-art facilities for this task; it is relatively easy to re-tool and ramp up to provide new specific training as required.

The Unions also have apprenticeship coordinators who work with our dispatch system to put apprentices to work on the job. There’s a union advantage at work here. An apprentice who is indentured to a construction company is simply laid off when a project ends or when that apprentice’s craft is no longer required. When that former apprentice searches for work he often floats into an unrelated job and never completes his apprenticeship.

By contrast, an apprentice indentured to a journeyperson through the Union can be dispatched to other jobs with other union companies. This fact alone accounts for much of the success of Union apprenticeship programs, which show a completion rate around 95 per cent, compared to the industry average of 37 per cent. A success rate of 95 per cent is nothing short of astounding, and it is incomprehensible why our governments are not lining up to take advantage of it.

There is a myth that there are no miners working in BC. Aside from members from other Unions who work in this industry, we have underground miners in the Labourers Union who are doing this work; there are Operating Engineers running heavy equipment in BC’s mines. We have Millwrights working underground installing machinery and we have Electricians, Plumbers and other trades working in various aspects of the industry all over the province.

Every underground mine needs a mill on the surface to process the material extracted from the mine. These mills and much other activity on the surface require employment of a wide range of skilled tradespeople, to support the underground activity. We suspect these Temporary Foreign Workers will be put to work on these surface jobs as well.

Time and again we have encountered the argument that these jobs require specific expertise which does not exist in Canada. We encountered that argument with the Tunnel Boring Machines on the RAV Canada Line as well as in the tunnels in the Seymour Watershed. The fact is, Canadian workers were soon running this machinery quite successfully because they are trained and qualified tradespeople who have the foundation skills that are required for this type of work.

Now we come to the safety issue.

For generations, Canadian workers have learned to value human life, safety and health as the top priority on the job site. Our collective agreements and labour laws give workers the unfettered right to refuse work which they deem to be unsafe, and their right to do so has been upheld time and again by the courts. It is safe to say the culture of any Canadian workplace is one of safety first and foremost. It is one of the reasons we enjoy such a well-developed system of workers compensation, an organization totally devoted to this issue.

On the other hand, safety in Chinese mines is a sham. According to Chinese government statistics, there were 1,973 miners killed in Chinese coal mines last year. There is no report on how many workers were injured and maimed but survived. There are also reports of cover-ups of other incidents involving deaths and serious injuries in China’s mines. The Chinese government provides a chilling statistic: there are currently 35 workers killed for every 100 million tons of coal produced in their country. By contrast, a total of 142 persons lost their lives in BC workplace accidents last year.

For this kind of safety atrocity to persist requires companies whose eye is on the bottom line first and foremost, whose supervisors disregard safety and security of human life in favour of production quotas, and whose workers are overwhelmed by a culture which leads them to accept the possibility of death as a cost of having a job. This psychology is totally counter to the culture of work in BC. Importing owners, supervisors and workers from China means importing a workplace culture which has no place in the Canadian context.

We do not oppose this plan to bring in Temporary Foreign Workers because we have a bias against foreigners. Far from it. If we genuinely could not provide the workers to fill those jobs, we would welcome these workers to our country, and we have done so in the past when consultation was more the norm than the exception.

We oppose this initiative on three grounds:

  • It is unnecessary – we have the workers in BC to fill these jobs.
  • It is a thinly disguised ploy to bring in a compliant workforce at rates of pay (take-home) near our minimum wage, which is far below the norm in the industry;
  • The owners are willing to sacrifice the lives of these workers in order to maximize their profits, and they realize that a Canadian union in their workplace would stand in their way.

We say that the first defense against such abuses in a Canadian workplace is a strong Union on the job. Workers in Canada cannot fear retribution for refusing unsafe work, period. A Union, with the protections of its collective agreement and it grievance procedure, is far and away the most effective means to guard the safety of workers on the job.

The expansion of mining in the North-East Sector does not need to be a negative development.

Our Unions and our members see a lot of good in this situation. We see the potential for creating many long-term good-paying jobs which will allow workers to raise their families safely and securely.

We see opportunities to make spaces for women, First Nations and our youth in the workforces at these mines, further extending the benefits of contributing to the local economy to these groups. A well-trained workforce attracts other industries and makes our province even stronger.

We see wages staying right here in BC, creating spin-off jobs and prosperity for the north-east sector and for our entire province. Communities and families are enriched when family members have good-paying jobs.

We see significant additional tax and other revenues for the government flowing from a well-managed made-in-BC work plan for this important sector of our economy. British Columbians who are enjoying jobs with good wages and benefits do not sap the resources of our government through social assistance, programs for the unemployed, and the high costs of fractured families.

We call on our governments and these companies in the mining industry to work with our unions to prepare the workers who will be needed in this industry over the next 30 to 40 years. With proper preparation the mining could be accomplished on time, within budget, and safely, which is the tradition of BC’s unions.

Work with us to develop programs to integrate women, First Nations, youth and other groups into the workforce, so we can provide these groups with the employment opportunities they need.

Support our work with apprentices to enable the unions to provide a steady stream of young, well trained and well motivated workers which will be needed in the future years of the program.

We stand ready to help the federal and provincial governments and the companies in this way, and if there is anything we can do to expedite those processes, we are willing to cooperate fully.

Regards,

Mark Olsen

President,
Bargaining Council of BC Building Trade Unions

 

Copies:
Hon. Lisa Raitt, Minister of Labour
Hon. Diane Finley, Minister of Human Resources & Skills Development
Hon. Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration & Multiculturalism
Hon. Thomas Mulcair, Leader of the Official Opposition
Alexandre Boulerice, Labour critic
Jinny Sims, Citizenship critic

Hon. Pat Bell, Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training (Minister Responsible for Labour)
Hon. Rich Coleman, Minister of Energy, Mines and Natural Gas
Adrian Dix, Leader, BC NDP
Shane Simpson, critic for Labour
John Horgan, critic for Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources
Doug Donaldson, critic for Mining
Gwen O’Mahoney, critic for Skills Training

Harold Munro, Editor, Vancouver Sun
Wayne Moriarty, Editor, Vancouver Province
Bradley Fehr, Editor, Journal of Commerce
Bill Good Show, CKNW
Paisley Woodward, CBC Producer
Craig McInnes, Vancouver Sun
Peter O’Neil, Postmedia News
Wendy Stueck, Globe and Mail