B.C. company must pay $229,000 to workers treated like ‘slaves’

Tree planters in bush camps were underfed, overworked, dirty and not always paid

A British Columbia company must pay $229,000 to dozens of workers who had to deal with poor working conditions and withheld pay last year.

Surrey, B.C.-based tree-planting company Khaira Enterprises employed many seasonal workers — a large number of them immigrants from Africa — to plant trees in areas that had been logged. The workers were stationed in bush camps where the company oversaw their accommodations and food for a period of time while they planted in remote areas under a provincial government contract.

On July 21, 2010, an official with the B.C. forest ministry and later the RCMP checked out a Khaira bush camp near Golden, B.C., after fishermen reported a fire. They discovered 25 workers living in squalid conditions with low pay that made the workers what B.C. Federation of Labour President Jim Sinclair called at the time “virtual slaves.”

An investigation of the camp revealed workers started their day at 4:30 a.m. with bread and peanut butter for breakfast. Workers were then crammed beyond capacity into vans and taken to an area to clear brush. The workers reported they would have to work until the evening with no lunch, breaks or fresh water to drink. Dinners were chicken and rice, which sometimes was spoiled. The shower and toilet facilities were poor, so the workers were told to bathe and drink from a river and relieve themselves in the woods. At night, the workers slept on smelly mattresses in the boxes of one-tonne trucks — with 10 to 12 men per truck.

The workers claimed they were stuck in the camp without transportation and couldn’t cash their paycheques. They also reported supervisors used racial slurs against them. When they stopped working on July 17 to protest their working conditions, they claimed Khaira denied them food.

The B.C. Employment Standards Branch investigated other Khaira bush camps and found poor conditions there as well. On Jan. 17, it ordered Khaira to pay 57 workers a total of $229,000 for outstanding wages and compensation for their ordeal. After the decision, a lawyer for the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre told the Vancouver Sun some workers were homeless because of the unpaid wages and couldn’t collect employment insurance because Khaira didn’t keep track of their hours worked.

In August, the provincial government banned Khaira from bidding on government contracts for one year.

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