Chinese workers headed to Greenland – by Marilyn Scales (Canadian Mining Journal – December 11, 2012)

Marilyn Scales is a field editor for the Canadian Mining Journal, Canada’s first mining publication. She is one of Canada’s most senior mining commentators.

If something happens twice, does that the beginning of a trend? The “something” is governments allowing foreign workers to fill jobs at mining projects. With the blessing of Canada’s federal government, HD Mining is importing “temporary” Chinese workers for its Murray River coal project in British Columbia. Greenland has passed legislation that will allow the employment of Chinese workers in Greenland at the Isua iron ore project belonging to London Mining plc.

In Canada, the idea of Chinese workers arriving to fill jobs at a coal mine was first floated a few years ago. Then the plan fell below the radar until The Globe and Mail newspaper revived the story a week ago when it was learned that speaking Mandarin is a requirement for working at the Murray River project.

In Greenland, the new legislation paves the way for companies to employ foreign workers at lower wages than they would pay natives of Greenland. All political parties voted for the law, with the exception of the largest opposition party which abstained.

The situations in Canada and Greenland vary on one notable point: Canada has a skilled mining workforce, Greenland does not.

By virtue of our world class mineral industry, Canada has a knowledgeable, inventive and hardworking pool of labour from which to choose. Granted, there are shortages of skilled workers as many current employees retire. But that doesn’t mean it is impossible to find miners in this country.

A notable exception was the commissioning of the Kidd Creek copper smelter in Timmins, ON, in 1981. This writer was on the site along with a couple dozen Japanese technicians sent by the manufacturer to ensure a smooth start-up. They brought with them knowledge of running an identical smelter in their homeland. The technicians were on the manufacturer’s payroll, not employees of Kidd Creek Mines. When commercial production was reached, they left Canada.

This arrangement – a manufacturer sending employees to ensure hoists/haul trucks/shovels or mineral processing circuits run smoothly – has become accepted practice in Canada.

Greenland lacks a mineral industry of much size, hence there is no mining culture or workforce in that country. In that case, importing miners from China probably makes a certain amount of sense. Paying foreign workers less than Greenlanders would earn for the same work is incomprehensible. If London Mining had to pay the higher wages, would importing a workforce still make economic sense? Maybe the use of cheap labour is an easy means of lining the pockets of management and shareholders.

Canadians should keep an eye on the foreign workers in the BC coalfields. If they are there only because they provide cheap labour at the expense of Canadian workers, we cannot conscience that.