A B.C. Human Rights Tribunal has ordered a Surrey-based tree planting company to pay more than $600,000 in compensation to 55 African workers it discriminated against at camps in the Golden-Revelstoke area in 2010.
Khaira Enterprises ran camps in the B.C. Interior and abused and discriminated against African refugees working there, according to a ruling released Friday.
The company owners have been ordered to pay each affected worker $10,000 plus another $1,000 for each additional month they worked after the first one.
African workers who testified before the tribunal likened their treatment to slavery, and while tribunal member Norman Trerise did not go that far, he found they were racially harassed and underpaid compared to Caucasian and South Asian workers.
“I find that the actions of Khaira and its principals in favouring the South Asian and Caucasian workers over the African workers was discriminatory on the basis of race, colour and place of origin,” his ruling found.
Trerise found they suffered embarrassment, a degree of depression, frustration and loss of self-esteem as a result of the discrimination.
Some workers were also subject to sexual harassment.
As for dismal camp conditions, the ruling said all workers were exposed to them.
Khaira’s owners are also restricted from future work in the silviculture industry.
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.
Khaira was previously ordered by B.C.’s forest safety ombudsman to repay more than $236,800 in unpaid wages but workers got less than half of that and only because the province withheld the money and redirected it to them.
Khalid Bajwa, the owner of Khaira Enterprises, has been charged with fraud and forgery. Court documents allege that Bajwa forged two fire suppression certificate documents and that he defrauded two representatives of B.C. forestry companies. Bajwa pleaded not guilty and the case is awaiting trial.
Sarah Khan, one of two lawyers with the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre who argued the case in front of the human rights tribunal, said they were very happy with the ruling.
“We think It’s great the tribunal has recognized that what happened to these workers does amount to discrimination on the basis of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour and sex,” she said.
Khan said tribunal member Norman Trerise did a “very thorough job” and that he made a few key findings, notably relating to the existence of anti-black racism in Canada.
“He accepted that it’s very difficult for black people in Canada, that things can be quite difficult in terms of equal access in Canadian society,” she said. “That’s really important to recognize because most of the complainants came through the refugee system to Canada from Congo, Burundi, Rwanda and Guinea.
“Norman Trerise found the employer has a duty to ensure a respectful workplace and erase poisonous workplace environments and the complaint was fully justified.”
Khan hopes the ruling will help spur various actions that will eradicate racism in Canada.
“We continue to hear about incidents like this, while not as extreme as what happened at Khaira,” Khan said. “I think we all have a responsibility to work to get rid of it.”
– with files from Alex Cooper / Revelstoke Times-Review
Workers for Khaira Enterprises outside a notorious tree planting camp near Golden in 2010. File