Dec '12/Jan '13

Debate over imported coal workers

Chinese mine pushes Canadian labour market question

By Zoë Macintosh

Longwall mining machines automatically move across the coal face | Helen Simonsson


Chinese-controlled HD Mining attracted widespread ire in October for its decision to bring in 201 Chinese workers for its Murray River metallurgical coal deposit. Mainstream media alleged that the company discriminates against Canadians because of its listing of “Mandarin” as a requirement in job ads. The company plans to develop the Murray River deposit as a longwall project, a method of underground coal mining no longer practised in Canada. Production is expected to begin in 2015.

Jody Shimkus, vice-president of environmental and regulatory affairs at HD Mining, has publicly cited the lack of longwall mining experience in Canada as reason for the company’s need to look elsewhere for labourers. The Canadian Temporary Foreign Workers Program permitted the hires by granting a positive Labour Market Opinion to the company’s application.

But a statement provided by Shimkus confirmed the temporary foreign workers are being brought in to do 100,000 tonnes of bulk sampling work, not longwall mining. Longwall mining involves an automated shearer traveling back and forth across the coal face, with a hydraulic roof support system that automatically advances. The method’s last successful incarnation in Canada, the Prince mine in Cape Breton, closed in 2001 after a drawn-out decline. Bulk sampling, on the other hand, is a standard mining process in all mineral extraction sectors by which a company assesses the value of a deposit. In this case, bulk sampling is happening simultaneously with the creation of the new mine’s tunnels and entryways.

“This pre-operation stage involves [surface] ground preparation, which is done by local Canadian companies, and underground work which requires special skills proven rare in BC and Canada,” the statement from HD Mining said.

But Bobby Burchell, Canadian representative of the United Mine Workers of America, diasagrees. “For them to say there’s no [coal bulk sampling] expertise in Canada, that’s bullshit,” he said. Burchell, who has experience with longwall mines, added that only the greater exposure to methane gases makes underground coal sampling differ from gold or diamond sampling.

The federal government may back him up. Currently, it is reviewing the Temporary Foreign Workers Program. “We are not satisfied that sufficient efforts were made to recruit or train Canadians interested in jobs,” said Diane Finley, Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development. “It is clear to our government that there are some problems with the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. We take these very seriously.”

The idea of bringing in foreign experienced labour has brought the importance of training to the fore of discussion.

“In my opinion there should be a lot more training dollars put in by both the coal companies and the governments to train younger Canadians to work in the mines,” Burchell said, pointing out that longwall production at the Murray River project is still more than a year away.

Burchell represents the union for Grande Cache Coal, one of two underground coal mines still operating in Canada. The mine has also trained “a lot” of Canadian hard rock miners, he said, bringing them up to speed on the coal environment’s unique conditions and hazards once underground.

Training for longwall mining, though, will take investment of resources. “There are many people that believe you can train a longwall miner or a coal miner in ten minutes, and it’s not going to ­happen,” said Ed Taje, senior inspector of underground coal mines in B.C., who has experience in longwall mining. “The reason they mine coal is that it burns. So you’re basically mining a fuel. As a result, you’re way more paranoid and cognisant of that. It’s a different culture.”

Several BC mine inspectors have already undergone a longwall knowledge exchange in China. An October 2011 tour of HD Mining and partners’ mines in China was the first time most had ever seen a longwall, Taje said. “It opened their eyes,” he explained. “I think they went, some of them, with the expectation that they were going to see the [negative] newspaper articles about China. And they actually went to a modern operation with current standards […] not much different from here.”

The reason BC inspectors need additonal training is because all of Canada’s longwall experience lies on the east coast in an aging population of miners now in their mid 50s. That workforce could still be available for mentoring and training, said Bob MacDonald, director general of site operations and remediation at ­Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation.

MacDonald said the question of importing coal labour is not likely to go away. “They are dealing with [importing labour] as a matter of fact in the Australian coal mining industry,” he said “They are struggling right now to find coal mining people. It’s really a battle around the world.”

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