Tumbler Ridge Suffering Massive Unemployment

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

David Hogben

Frustration is growing in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains as unemployed Tumbler Ridge miners watch more jobs go to foreign temporary workers— with promises of thousands more going to non-Canadians.

Things were bad enough when Peace River Coal announced last summer it would shut down its mine at the end of 2014. Some 300 coal miners were out of luck and soon to be out of work. Things only got worse when it was revealed in January that the proposed Murray River coal mine, just 12.5 kilometres outside of town, was planning to hire more foreign temporary workers than Canadians for the early years of its operations.

According to an article in the Alaska Highway News published in October, Tumbler Ridge was grappling with an unemployment rate of up to 70%.

“The town of 2,700 has been largely dependent on mining since it was incorporated in 1981. Around 700 people directly lost their jobs over a period of around six months, and by the end of last year, there were no working coal mines in Tumbler Ridge,” the article stated.

“It’s infuriating, as a Canadian and a trade union leader, to watch the company continue to use temporary foreign workers for jobs that are extracting Canadian resources,” said Brian Cochrane, business manager of the Operating Engineers Local 115.

He talked to Tradetalk after the news broke that, at peak in 2018, close to 65% of the workers (500) at the Murray River project would be from outside Canada. HD Mining said it plans to have an all-Canadian workforce by 2027, a decade after the Murray River mine is expected to open.

The Operating Engineers Local 115 and the Labourers Local 1611 were instrumental in pressuring the federal government to reform the Temporary Foreign Worker Program last year after they used the courts to challenge the company’s plans to hire hundreds of foreign workers. Some 300 Canadians had been denied jobs, many because they could not speak Mandarin. The unions lost the case, but helped create a national furore over the federal government policy of approving temporary foreign workers to take jobs that unemployed Canadians were qualified to fill.

Cochrane called on HD Mining last September to employ more Canadians when the shutdown at Peace River Coal was announced. It was the fourth mine to close in the area. He said it was a “sad statement” that the “only miners left working in the town are from China, not Canada.”

Many Canadian workers have been forced to leave their families behind in Tumbler Ridge and go to work in other areas.

“A lot of our members are pretty disgruntled that there are 51 temporary foreign workers at the Murray River project,” said Business Rep Brett Chapman in an interview. He said workers are increasingly frustrated with the federal policies which are allowing foreign workers to take jobs while qualified Canadians are unemployed or forced to look for work in other parts of the country.

To solve the problem and ease the frustration, Cochrane said, the government must reform the program once again. With some 300,000 temporary foreign workers in the country and high unemployment rates, Cochrane said, the federal government needs to act.

“They need to revisit some of the permits that they have already issued.”

Meanwhile, the liquefied natural gas project proposed by Petronas for Prince Rupert is also expected to hire hundreds of foreign temporary workers. Documents filed with the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office revealed Petronas plans to hire 1,540 foreigners—almost 40% of its workforce— at its $11-billion LNG terminal on Lelu Island at Prince Rupert.

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