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Concerns emerge over NextStar's plans to hire foreign workers for battery plant

NextStar Energy Inc.'s plans to bring foreign workers to help build a heavily subsidized battery plant in Windsor, Ont. has drawn concerns about why the jobs aren't going to Canadians.
Concerns are rising over plans by NextStar Energy Inc. to bring in foreign workers to help build a battery plant in Windsor, Ont. which is being supported by an expected $15 billion in public funding. Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre speaks at a news conference in the Foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

NextStar Energy Inc.'s plans to bring foreign workers to help build a heavily subsidized battery plant in Windsor, Ont. has drawn concerns about why the jobs aren't going to Canadians. 

Federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said he is pushing for a full inquiry into the issue to find out how many workers the company plans to bring in from abroad. The plant is expected to receive upwards of $15 billion in publicly funded incentives.

"Our money should fund our paycheques," he said in Ottawa on Monday. "We want a commitment that none of the money should go to temporary foreign work."

It's not clear how many workers NextStar Energy, a joint venture between automaker Stellantis and South Korea's LG, plans to bring from outside Canada.

Concerns were raised in part from a social media post last week by Windsor police, who said that after meeting with South Korean ambassador Woongsoon Lim, it expected about 1,600 workers from South Korea to come to the community next year to help build the plant.

NextStar Energy chief executive Danies Lee said in a statement Monday that the company is committed to hiring Canadians to fill more than 2,500 full-time jobs at the battery plant, and engage with up to 2,300 more local tradespeople to help with construction and installation.

He said, however, that the company has to bring in workers to help build the advanced manufacturing plant.

"The equipment installation phase of the project requires additional temporary specialized global supplier staff who have proprietary knowledge and specialized expertise that is critical to the successful construction and launch of Canada's first large scale battery manufacturing facility." 

The claim that the company needs to bring in foreign workers was challenged by politicians, including Brian Masse, the NDP member of Parliament for Windsor West. 

"There's no question in my mind that we have the skill set in Windsor, Essex County, in Ontario for these jobs," he said in Ottawa.

"This is about Canadian jobs that we can get to build a Canadian facility, with Canadian taxpayers money."

He called for more transparency on the multi-billion dollar contracts with automakers, including what kind of labour provisions are included.

Industry Minister spokeswoman Audrey Champoux said the details of the contracts can't be shared because of their commercially sensitive nature, but that benefits to Canada are at the heart of negotiations with global automakers.

Farrah-Lilia Kerkadi, a spokeswoman for Employment Minister Randy Boissonnault, said in a statement that the government has approved only one employee for this specific project through the temporary foreign worker program, and expects all businesses to make use of skilled labour in Canada.

"We have not yet seen a reasonable justification for needing to bring in large numbers of foreign workers and would ask NextStar to prioritize Canadian talent," she said.

At the provincial level, with Ontario footing a third of the plant subsidies, politicians were also raising concerns about the foreign hiring. 

Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles said she's also concerned that some jobs going to foreign workers could be done by local employees. 

"These jobs were promised to Ontarians, to Ontario workers, good union jobs." 

She said Ontario's Progressive Conservative government should have made sure there were clauses in the public funding contracts that ensured the jobs would go to local workers.

Ontario Labour Minister David Piccini deflected responsibility for foreign workers to the federal Liberals, while maintaining that local workers have the necessary skills.

"The work that we know needs to be done can be done by Ontario workers," he said. 

Plans to bring in temporary foreign workers also raised serious flags for Unifor, national president Lana Payne said in a statement.

She said Lee's clarifying statements Monday have, however, alleviated some of the union's immediate concerns.

"Our union will closely monitor the hiring process to ensure Canadian workers are first to benefit from this historic investment in the auto sector and that NextStar fulfils its stated commitment to good jobs in Canada,” she said.

— With files from Liam Casey

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 20, 2023.

Ian Bickis, The Canadian Press