A month or so ago, Huizhi Li was just one of dozens of Chinese men who pegged their hopes for a better life on a job in Tumbler Ridge, a British Columbia town built near seams of coal.
Now Mr. Li, who is in his mid-20s and came from China to work for Vancouver-based HD Mining, has signed his name to a human-rights complaint, putting himself in the middle of a dispute that has implications not only for him and his fellow employees but for the B.C. and federal governments, Canadian companies that hire foreign workers and the labour and immigration policies that allow them to be hired.
In his complaint, dated Dec. 10 and distributed by his employer, Mr. Li says he is worried that United Steelworkers' statements on the Internet are "likely to create contempt for Chinese persons and in particular Chinese mining workers."
The United Steelworkers, along with other unions, have criticized HD Mining's plans to hire foreign workers, saying the company could have done more to hire and train Canadians. As part of that campaign, the union has posted statements online saying foreign workers are vulnerable to exploitation, including being underpaid and denied workplace benefits.
USW district director Stephen Hunt rejected the notion that such statements could create contempt for Chinese workers. The claim is being filed under a section of the act that relates to hate speech on the Internet.
"We have taken a strong stand on behalf of workers here that we do think are being exploited," Mr. Hunt said, referring to HD Mining employees who are already in Tumbler Ridge and others scheduled to arrive this month. "To make a suggestion that we are racist is just simply wrong."
Lawyers for HD Mining wrote Thursday to the federal deputy minister of justice to voice concerns about statements federal ministers Diane Finley and Jason Kenney have made about the controversy. On Nov. 8, Ms. Finley, Human Resources Minister, issued a statement in which she said she wasn't satisfied that sufficient efforts had been made to hire Canadian workers for the B.C. jobs. And this month, Immigration Minister, Mr. Kenney, was quoted as saying that mistakes may have been made in hiring foreign workers for the project.
In the letter, HD Mining's counsel says it has "grave concerns" with actions taken by the ministers and could take the matter up in court.
The human rights complaint comes as a federal court judge is weighing arguments in a related court case.
HD Mining plans to build a coal mine near Tumbler Ridge, about 1,000 kilometres north of Vancouver, with the help of Chinese workers brought to B.C. under Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
Two labour groups – Local 1611 of the Construction and Specialized Workers' Union and Local 115 of the International Union of Operating Engineers – applied for a judicial review of the process that gave HD Mining permission to hire 201 workers for its project.
As part of that court action, the unions are seeking an injunction that would prevent about 60 Chinese miners from starting work at HD Mining's Murray River coal project later this month. About 15 workers, including Mr. Li, have arrived in recent weeks.
The company says an injunction would result in millions of dollars' worth of delays.
"A delay in our schedule could cost as much as $6.3-million in the first 30 days," said Jody Shimkus, a spokeswoman for HD Mining.
Contractors for the project are also fighting the injunction. Triland Modular Ltd. and Northern Lands Development Corp., which have contracts with Huiyong Holdings to build housing and dining facilities for the workers in Tumbler Ridge, said they would also lose tens of thousands of dollars.
"Any delay in proceeding with these contracts will have significant financial impacts on Triland and Northern Lands," James Rea, president and chief executive of both companies, said in an affidavit, estimating standby costs for the two projects of about $80,000 a month.
A judge is expected to rule on the injunction as early as Friday.
Labour groups have for years been raising concerns about Canada's increasing reliance on foreign workers. A Metcalf Foundation report released this year found the number of migrant workers in Canada has tripled since 2000 and that since 2006, the number of migrant workers with temporary status who enter the country each year has exceeded the number of economic immigrants who are granted permanent resident status.