Khaira forestry workers awarded back wages

  • Jan. 31, 2011 7:00 p.m.

Workers who were found living and working in brutal conditions in a forestry camp 40 km west of Golden last summer were just awarded $228,000 in back wages.

Fifty-seven people who worked for Khaira Enterprises between March and July of last year will receive the money in back wages, including overtime and vacation pay, as well as compensation for poor conditions, according to an employment standards branch decision on Jan. 17. This includes workers who were found at the camp near Golden and workers from Revelstoke, Texada Island, Powell River, Salmon Arm and Kamloops.

Khaira owners Khalid Mahmood Bajwa and Hardilpreet Singh Sidhu, who bought the reforestation company in 2009, were also fined $3,500 for at least seven violations of the Employment Standards Act.

“This is a huge victory for these workers who had the courage to step forward,” said Jim Sinclair, president of the British Columbia Federation of Labour, in a recent press release. “They also had the assistance of dedicated lawyers who helped them argue their case with the Employment Standards Branch. Most workers do not get this kind of legal help and stand little chance of collecting back wages from unscrupulous employers.”

Ros Salvador, a lawyer with the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre who represented the workers, called the decision a “monumental victory,” in a recent Times Colonist article. Many of the workers suffered homelessness because of lost wages and an inability to collect EI because the company did not accurately document their hours.

“This is the first official recognition that there were extreme violations of the workers’ rights,” she said.

John Betts, the Executive Director of the Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association — an organization that promotes the proper management of forest ecosystems in Western Canada —said he is happy with the ruling but wants to emphasize that these workers don’t have the money in their pocket yet.

“It’s one thing to have the ruling and another thing to actually see the money,” Betts told the Golden Star, explaining that it will most likely still be a drawn-out process from here.

Betts said the industry is fed up with dealing with contractors that don’t abide with the law. Contractors like Khaira, he explains are not typical in the industry.

“90 per cent of these contractors run exemplary camps. We work with our workers. You can’t abuse and exploit your workers and run a successful business.”

Betts also noted that we need to look at the government and ask why they don’t seem to be able to do anything to keep “bad” contractors out of the industry.

“These government agencies, B.C. Timber Sales and the Ministry of Forests, are as culpable as the contractors in terms of their failure to make sure these contractors are complicit with both their contracts and the laws of the land.”

Betts emphasized that the Khaira case is by no means the first time this sort of incident has happened.

“This has been going on for years,” he said, explaining that his organization has spent at least 20 years trying to get the B.C. government to work together with various agencies to deal with contractors who are awarded contracts but treat employees poorly.

Sinclair is calling for an investigation.

“We need an independent investigation into this industry. We also need to ensure the public agencies that oversee it are adequately resourced to do the work. This includes the Employment Standards Branch, the Workers’ Compensation Board and the Ministry of Forests. A decade of budget cuts have left these agencies under resourced to do the work that needs to be done,” he said in the press release.

The 28 workers who were found at a camp on Bluewater Creek west of Golden had no safe drinking water or toilet facilities at their camp. They slept in shipping containers and cleared brush seven days a week for 10 to 14 hours with minimal breaks.

“We were lucky to run into creeks in some of our blocks,” 24-year-old Christine Barker, a former camp worker, told The Tyee last summer. “ It was a relief for us because we were not allowed to leave the block, the workplace.”

Workers were given bread, jam and peanut butter for breakfast and no lunch. Dinners were often reported to be unrefrigerated meats. Former employees also reported physical and verbal abuse, workplace racism, death threats, refusal of adequate medical treatment and underpayment and non-payment of wages.

The camp was found when a group of fisherman contacted the Ministry of Forests on July 21 to report burning garbage. The workers were removed quickly, fed by the Trinity Lutheran Church and housed in a motel before taking a bus back to Vancouver. Most of the Khaira workers are Canadian citizens or permanent residents originally from Burundi and the Republic of Congo.

Joan, from the Trinity Lutheran Church told the Golden Star last August of her experience with the Khaira Workers :

“They told me that they were sleeping in shipping containers and they had to shower outside, near the latrines,” she says. “The conditions were horrendous. The Ministry [Forests Ministry] said that the work camp conditions were like that of a third world country.”

Joan went on to say that the workers said they were expected to work seven days a week and if they didn’t work a day, they would not be fed. They told her they had been working since mid-March without being paid properly.

“When I was contacted by Social Services, I was met (at the church) with 25 men who hadn’t eaten in two days because they had decided to go on strike.”

Joan did her best to cook up a meal for the men, whose appetites had been affected by the lack of food, and then used the church’s grocery store gift certificates to purchase lunches for the next day for the 25 men. The men stayed at the church while they waited for Social Services to arrange their transportation out of Golden and while they made their statements to WorkSafe BC.

“On the next night I made a spaghetti dinner for them and by that time they had their appetites back. They were so excited to get food,” she said.

She continued with stories of the men trying to cash their pay cheques and again and again having them bounce.

“One man said that he wasn’t going to try and cash his cheque because he just couldn’t afford another NSF charge.”

Joan said that she was happy that the church was able to help.