NextStar Energy Inc. says it expects upwards of 900 foreign workers to help build its heavily subsidized electric vehicle battery plant in Windsor, Ont. The head of Canada’s Building Trades Unions calls the move “a slap in the face” and an “insult to Canadian taxpayers.”
The statement from the union comes as the use of the workers has become a political issue on Parliament Hill, raising questions and concerns over the course of the past week from federal leaders.
The company, jointly owned by Stellantis and South Korea-based LG Corp., says the temporary global staff will be part of the roughly 1,600 technicians its external suppliers will use to assemble, install and test specialized equipment.
“Bringing approximately 900 South Korean workers to handle the installation of this equipment is not only an insult to Canadian taxpayers who funded this project with the understanding that jobs were going to Canadians, but it is a slap in the face to our workers and contractors, including those in Windsor, who are the most highly-skilled tradespeople in the world,” said Sean Strickland, executive director of Canada’s Building Trades Unions.
The estimate of 900 temporary foreign workers comes a week after Windsor police posted on social media that upwards of 1,600 South Koreans would be coming to help build the plant, raising concerns from labour leaders and politicians about how many local jobs would be created by the plant.
NextStar says that it remains committed to creating 2,500 full-time jobs for Canadians to run the completed plant, and that the construction company it has contracted will employ 1,600 Canadian tradespeople directly and through subcontractors.
On Friday, Innovation Minister Francois-Phillippe Champagne stressed that Stellantis is putting up $3.4 billion to build the plant, and much for the government subsidies are conditional on hitting production targets. He says that the federal and Ontario government contributions to construction are $500 million each.
“I spoke to the unions, I spoke to the building trades. You know, the experts have been clear all that you need a technology transfer. You know, because battery manufacturing was not part of the industry we had either in Canada and the United States. So we need a technology transfer,” Champagne said.
In an interview with Global News, Strickland said that traditionally on jobs like this Canadian workers do the installation, and the original manufacturer brings in their own people to act in a supervisor role.
“Our view is that 900 foreign workers to install this equipment in Windsor is way over the top. We have skilled tradespeople in Windsor. The skilled tradespeople across Canada are able and willing and trained to do this work,” he said.
“So any kind of indication that we don’t have the capacity or the knowledge in Canada’s construction industry to install this equipment is not accurate.”
Now, Champagne is working on setting up a meeting between himself, the unions and company to address concerns around temporary foreign workers and their role in construction.
“Now what I want to do is to sit down with the company, sit down with the unions and making sure that we understand fully the landscape, what is the minimum required amount of people that we need to transfer the technology and make sure that Canadians and Canadian workers could operate, build this plant so that we have benefits for generations to come,” Champagne said.
Strickland says that the CBTU has been trying to arrange a meeting with Stellantis and LG for months to get a better sense of what they need from the labour market. He said he doesn’t want to speculate on why 900 temporary foreign workers may be needed, but remains firm the Canadian labour market can fulfill the need.
“I can tell you, if 900 workers come in from South Korea, when we have Canadians available to do this job, we’re not going to get the economic lift that we’d hope we would get. There’d be a hell of a lot of money leaving the Windsor area supported by Canadian taxpayers, going back to South Korea,” Strickland said.
Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre said Monday his party is demanding a “full inquiry” into the federal government’s contract with Stellantis after reports of the taxpayer-subsidized battery plant in Ontario potentially using international workers. Poilievre said the terms of the contract should be made public and that no money should go to the employment of temporary foreign workers.
Champagne said earlier this week that he expects the company will bring in a few foreign workers to help with the project, but expects the company to prioritize Canadian workers.
On Wednesday, Employment Minister Randy Boissonault said during question period that only one temporary foreign worker has been approved for the project.
The battery plant is expected to draw upwards of $15 billion in government funding through incentives linked partially to how many batteries it produces.
— with files from The Canadian Press