Stakeholders always knew foreign workers would be needed to launch the massive electric vehicle (EV) battery plant in the works in Windsor, Ont., the head of the regional chamber of commerce said amid controversy over the expected hiring of hundreds of South Koreans for the NextStar EV battery factory.
“This is something that we’ve known, especially with a plant of this nature and magnitude,” Rakesh Naidu said in an interview with CBC News.
“We always knew that there would be people coming from different places — some from South Korea, some from other places — where they have the experience of setting up a plant like that,” added Naidu, president and chief executive officer of the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce.
The NextStar factory, a partnership between Stellantis and LG Energy Solution, received about $15 billion in subsidies from the federal and provincial governments.
Windsor’s police chief met with the South Korean ambassador last week ahead of next year’s anticipated arrival of the workers. According to a social media post from the police service, about 1,600 South Korean workers are coming to southwestern Ontario city for the project.
‘Not just any regular plant’
According to Naidu, it’s “very normal” for a company to bring in workers from outside Canada who have specialized expertise when establishing new technical facilities.
“They are the ones that will come to ensure that everything goes smoothly,” Naidu said. “Installing machines, commissioning them — all of that requires experience and skill sets.
“This is not any regular plant which has been established in Canada before. It’s a state-of-the-art manufacturing operation. It’s not like we have several of these already in Canada.”
On Tuesday, four federal Liberal ministers worked to calm tensions by explaining that South Koreans are legally eligible to work in Canada under a 2015 free trade agreement negotiated and implemented by Stephen Harper’s former Conservative government.
Randy Boissonault, minister of employment and workforce development, and François-Philippe Champagne, minister of innovation, science and industry, disputed the 1,600-worker figure.
Champagne said he expects “a fairly small number” of foreign workers will be necessary for the launch of the battery plant.”
NextStar Energy has described the incoming workers as “temporary specialized global supplier staff who have proprietary knowledge” on large-scale battery manufacturing. They’ll be involved in the “equipment installation phase of the project.”
The “gigafactory” — expected to cover 418,000 square metres — will be the first of its kind in Canada, and it is hoped it will be operational in 2025.
But controversy has continued to surround the presence of non-Canadian employees at the site.
Also on Tuesday, Ontario Conservatives joined the criticism against the federal government.
Provincial Labour Minister David Piccini and Economic Development Minister Vic Fedeli issued a joint letter to Boissonault.
The letter calls for Ottawa to “disclose the number of foreign workers in Ontario who are currently working on the construction site and how many will be arriving under federal programs.”
Windsor-Tecumseh MPP Andrew Dowie, a provincial Conservative member, expressed support for the letter.
But Naidu feels the controversy is unwarranted.
“I think maybe there is some confusion,” he said.
NextStar says it’s committed to hiring Canadians
Naidu believes distinctions should be made between the workforce required for the construction and installation of the plant, and the workforce required for regular production.
“And also, there is the ramp-up in between, as they scale up production,” Naidu said.
Naidu pointed to the presence of German workers when Volkswagen set up a plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., or the presence of Japanese workers when Toyota set up in Cambridge, Ont..
“I’m sure [the NextStar Energy plant] is going to be no different,” Naidu said. “There will be some who are required during the initial stage … training people who will then take on the key roles later, as production begins.
“I reiterate: It’s a very normal operation model.”
NextStar continues to emphasize it is committed to hiring 2,500 Canadians in full-time positions at the plant, along with up to 2,300 tradespeople locally and provincially.
Naidu believes the positives of the deal can’t be overlooked.
“This is going to spawn an industry. The auto industry’s future, we know, is changing…. It’s clearly something that we have to support as a region, as a province and as a country.”