The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal is hearing allegations that a Surrey silviculture company ran a racially divided camp in the B.C. Interior and subjected its tree planters to slave-like conditions.
The 50 workers – refugees from Congo – want unpaid wages and damages from Khaira Enterprises for being forced to live in what are described as cramped, subhuman conditions near the Golden-Revelstoke area in the summer of 2010.
On the first day of the hearing the lawyer representing the planters told the tribunal the workplace was split on racial lines, with blacks treated differently and forced to work on harder terrain than non-blacks.
B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair gave evidence Wednesday on how the labour organization aided the workers after learning they were underfed, unpaid and subjected to racial slurs.
“This camp was a complete disgrace – the conditions were from another age,” Sinclair said in an interview.
He said other companies that run bush camps continue to treat workers poorly and he blames the provincial government for failing to do more to prevent abuse.
B.C.’s system of awarding silviculture work encourages low-ball bidding and corner cutting on camp conditions without adequate safeguards, Sinclair said.
“The conditions that led to the racism, the extreme conditions, still exists today. The steps necessary to stop this haven’t been taken by the government.”
The province terminated its contract with Khaira after its workers were discovered in squalor, some of them saying they hadn’t eaten in two days, and a series of investigations ensued.
Sinclair noted B.C.’s forest safety ombudsman probed the Khaira case, declared it intolerable and issued a dozen recommendations in 2011 that have largely been ignored, including a call for a more workable system of inspecting camps led by a single agency.
Khaira was ordered to repay more than $236,800 in unpaid wages but Sinclair said workers only got about half of that amount and only because the province withheld the money and redirected it to them.
The co-owners of the Surrey company, Khalid Bashwa and Hardilpreet Sidhu, have denied mistreating workers and questioned why they kept coming back for contract work if they were unhappy.
Sinclair dismissed that argument, adding what’s remarkable is that the workers essentially went on strike and refused to work even though they were denied food until they were discovered and rescued.
“These are refugees trying to make a buck to survive in Canada, their new country. They don’t speak the language that well. They don’t know their rights and they’re really vulnerable to being exploited. We have to be on guard, we owe it to these people to make sure it doesn’t happen.”
The tribunal is expected to continue for several weeks.