VANCOUVER — The plight of dozens of tree planters subjected to squalid conditions while working in British Columbia’s remote forestry camps is “a national embarrassment,” says an industry spokesman.
“This has been a black eye for our sector,” said John Betts, executive director of the Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association, which represents most tree-planting companies in Western Canada.
Betts said he has received calls from across Canada from tree planters who come to B.C. for seasonal jobs and are concerned after hearing about the case.
On Monday, the British Columbia Employment Standards Branch ordered Khaira Enterprises of Surrey, B.C., to pay $228,000 to 57 workers for unpaid wages between last March and July.
Workers in four camps run by Khaira last year have also filed a human rights complaint claiming they were subject to racial slurs, violence and sexual harassment.
Ros Salvador, a lawyer with the British Columbia Public Advocacy Centre, said the case involved workers mostly of African heritage, all permanent residents or Canadian citizens, who were employed in several camps including Texada Island, Revelstoke and Golden, B.C. At least three of the employees were women.
Last August, WorkSafeBC issued a report saying the company violated 20 health and safety standards, including failing to provide safe and adequate food, water, toilets, showers or sleeping conditions.
The company, run by Khalid Mahmood Bajwa and Hardilpreet Singh Sidhu, won a government contract for the work.
Betts said Khaira was known as a “questionable player” but nothing was done to fix ongoing concerns.
“I think there are other exploitative contractors out there in the industry,” he said. “I know of a few and we are doing whatever we can to correct their behaviour and bring them into compliance.”
But years of trying to get the government’s attention about substandard practices in the tree-planting sector have not resulted in any changes, Betts said.
“We’ve been complaining to the ministries of the day for two to three decades about their inability to get poor-performing contractors out of the market,” he said.
“These are government-administered contracts that they give public dollars to.”
In Khaira’s case, the Forests Ministry became aware of poor camp conditions on Texada Island last March when residents reported their concerns, but the government allowed the company to continue operating, Betts said.
The Forests Ministry finally shut down the camp in Golden, B.C., last July after a group of fishermen reported a fire at a time when campfires were banned during forest-fire season. Ministry officials found the men and women living in squalor at the camp.
Betts said that last October, he and B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair met with then- labour minister Murray Coell to discuss Khaira’s poor practices and that Coell promised to involve the silviculture industry in dealing with the issue.
But Coell is no longer labour minister and current Labour Minister Iain Black said Monday he has no information about any such meeting and would discuss the matter the following day.
But Black did not respond to repeated calls for comment on Tuesday.
Sinclair said Coell promised an investigation of the situation involving five agencies and the lack of inspections at any of Khaira’s camps after the company’s poor performance again came to light last March but that did not happen.
Betts, who was a tree-planting contractor in the 1980s, said it would be impossible to run proper camps for the amount of money bid on some contracts.
The deplorable conditions have affected the reputation of legitimate contractors, he said.
“We know what people are thinking of us because many of our workers come from across Canada,” he said. “We’ve had people from Prince Edward Island call us and say ‘What the hell is gong on out there? Is this how you treat tree planters?
“I thought we were planting trees but it looks like we’re running medieval kinds of exploitative outfits.”