A British Columbia tree planter's contract has been terminated by the provincial government while authorities investigate allegations workers had no toilets, only creek water to drink and were paid with bounced cheques.

Upwards of 30 workers were removed from the Khaira Enterprises work camp, 40 kilometres west of Golden in southeastern B.C., after forestry ministry staff discovered what the province's labour minister describes as "substandard conditions" on July 21.

They had been responding to complaints of illegal burning.

The Surrey-based company has been barred from government work for at least one year and the ministry is withholding its security deposit and other funds on the grounds it contravened its contract with BC Timber Sales.

"I am very concerned about the alleged substandard conditions and mistreatment of employees at this forestry work camp," Labour Minister Murray Coell said Tuesday in a statement about terminating the contract.

"The conditions described are completely unacceptable for employees."

According to the B.C. Federation of Labour, whose staff and president have spoken to about a dozen workers in recent days, most members of the group were landed immigrants from Burundi and the Republic of Congo. President Jim Sinclair said they travelled from Winnipeg, Ottawa and Montreal to earn money to pay rent and go back to school.

They are also owed tens of thousands of dollars, he alleged, and said they initially tried striking and reaching out to authorities for help, but were only rescued when Forestry got the complaint for burning rubbish.

Sinclair said the workers were treated like "virtual slaves," and he put the blame on the province for lack of oversight.

"I've seen lots of lousy working conditions, but this is probably the grossest example that I've seen," he said in an interview. "It just shows you how far we've come as a society away from the idea that government is going to stop people from being abused."

Sinclair said the workers told him they received breakfast only consisting of bread, jam and peanut butter, no lunch and unrefrigerated chicken for dinner. They further complained they were subject to racism and death threats and were refused adequate medical treatment when someone was hurt, he said.

"They were hungry, cold, they were sleeping in containers on old foamies. The whole thing is a nightmare," Sinclair said.

"Ninety per cent of them are new immigrants, they're being taken advantage of partly because of who they are."

Upon finding the camp, RCMP, provincial staff and local first responders worked to immediately address the workers' health and safety concerns and find accommodation and transportation for them, Coell said.

WorkSafe BC and the Employment Standards Branch have launched investigations, including immediately interviewing the workers. A report could take several months.

"What's unique is this logging camp was actually within a worksite, my understanding is it was in the cut block or wherever they were planting," said WorkSafe BC spokeswoman Donna Freeman.

"I've never heard of anything like this from a Worksafe BC perspective. ... Certainly this is shocking to us and new to us."

Reached by phone, Khaira Enterprises director K.M. Bajwa refused to comment. A cached version of his company's website, which has only recently been taken down, says employees can expect "a safe work environment for work, rest and play" and "excellent earning potential."

"Yes, the food is awesome, and the people are awesome, but the work is challenging," the website said.

Sinclair fears there could be other hidden situations like this and called for the government to make and follow through on recommendations.

"If we hadn't found these workers and they hadn't come forward, British Columbians wouldn't know what's going on in the woods of this province," he said. "Now that we know it, shame on us if we don't fix it."