(Reuters) — British Columbia authorities said they are investigating complaints by a labour group that local mining jobs are being advertised in China by recruiters in exchange for hefty recruitment fees.
The investigation stems from accusations by the British Columbia Federation of Labour that recruitment firms in China are charging as much as $12,500 in fees to find temporary jobs for Chinese labourers at a mining development in the province owned by HD Mining International.
Local online newspaper, theTyee.ca, reported labourers are promised the "possibility of immigrating to Canada" and the ability to "sponsor your family to Canada, too."
The news site reported that a journalist posing as a mine labourer on an online Chinese jobsite was connected with recruiters who claimed to be hiring for the mining project.
HD Mining, which is jointly held by Huiyong Holdings and Canadian Dehua International Mines Group, has denied any link to a recruiting scheme.
The company has secured permits to import up to 201 foreign labourers under Canada's temporary foreign worker program, which it has said it needs to complete a bulk sample study at its Murray River coal project in remote northeastern British Columbia.
The province's Labour Minister Pat Bell confirmed on that his office was investigating the "serious" allegations. "The investigation is specific to the fee allegation that has been made," he said.
It is against Canadian labour law to charge a foreign temporary worker a fee for employment information and support, and workers cannot be forced to pay back recruitment costs to employers. Skilled temporary workers can apply to immigrate to Canada after four years of working in the country.
The controversy comes at a time of heightened sensitivities over Chinese ownership of Canadian resource assets. A contentious $15.1 billion bid by state-owned CNOOC to take over Canadian oil producer Nexen is being reviewed by federal authorities.
Canada's official opposition, the New Democratic Party, called for the immediate cancellation of HD Mining's temporary foreign worker permits and a full investigation into the company's hiring practices.
Outrage has swelled in British Columbia in recent weeks as unions and labour groups spoke out over HD Mining's plans to use foreign workers at the Murray River project.
The company has insisted it would only bring over existing employees of parent company Huiyong Holdings and that they would return to their existing jobs in China upon completion of the development project.
HD Mining spokeswoman Jody Shimkus said the company had tried to hire locally but was unable to find people with the skills to operate the specialized mining equipment that will be used at the project.
"We're using highly sophisticated, mechanized, underground long-wall mining equipment, which is currently not being used in Canada," she said. "One of the challenges we have is that equipment is not yet here, so it's difficult to train people."
Local labour groups have said the jobs were not advertised at going wage rates and no effort was been made to train local workers.
The United Steelworkers Union has accused HD Mining of intentionally excluding most Canadian workers from jobs by including Mandarin as a required language in postings.
Jobs now posted on the company's website do not require Mandarin language skills and start at $25 per hour for mechanics. The going rate for mine labourers in British Columbia is more than $30 per hour, the union said.
HD Mining's first 13 foreign workers are due to arrive in rural B.C. this month, with more expected as the project progresses. The company is currently doing bulk sampling work at the project, which is still years away from production.