Khaira Enterprises isn't the only B.C. company accused of not paying tree planters, and some in the industry are blaming lowball bids for government contracts and lax enforcement of laws.

John Betts, executive director of the Western Silvicultural Contractors' Association, said he's heard numerous stories about tree-planting contractors shortchanging employees at sites across the province so far this season.

"We are hearing through the grapevine that there are workers who are not getting their pay every two weeks," he told

"They have not seen any pay cheques and they've worked for months."

In fact, the Employment Standards Branch has already received eight formal complaints about working conditions in the silviculture industry this year -- two from groups and six from individuals.

Those complaints are a disturbing echo of worker allegations against Surrey-based Khaira Enterprises, which has been ordered to pay former employees $236,800 in unpaid wages.

Khaira has been banned from bidding on government contract work until September 2012, in response to slave-like conditions discovered at its work camps last year.

Betts says he wasn't surprised to learn that Khaira workers were living in crowded trailers and being fed rotten food; the WSCA warned BC Timber Sales months before the season began that Khaira's bids were too low to complete their contracts according to industry standards.

"Khaira's bid was substantially lower than experienced contractors," Betts said. "The bids were so outrageous."

A bid for a contract in the coastal region, for example, undercut competitors by close to 50 per cent, he says.

That contract included a Khaira work site on Texada Island, where as many as 15 people were sleeping in a single trailer, washing themselves with cups of water and eating just one meal per day.

Betts applauded the bravery of Khaira's former employees for taking on the company and refusing to suffer the treatment they were receiving.

"That these people actually had the grit to stand up to the abuse, considering how vulnerable they were, is commendable," he said.

But Khaira isn't the only company that dodges employment standards.

"There have been contractors that have operated on similar modus operandi," Betts said.

"They borrow money from workers and pay them back at the end of the season if everything works out."

He says similar companies also don't report where they are working to regulators and take advantage of vulnerable new immigrants who don't know how to get help in isolated areas.

Betts was apoplectic as he talked about the lack of oversight for lowballing contractors. He says that government officials and contractors in B.C. have worked hard to bring in tough regulations and camp standards for the industry.

"With all those efforts, if the agencies, the owners, the government authorities who put these contracts out don't enforce the laws, it's all for nothing," he said.

Betts says government agencies need to take special care to inspect and monitor contractors' work sites for employment and safety violations.

"If you're going to go with a low-bid contract ... you have an even greater responsibility to make sure that the contractor is not shirking."

Allegations against companies like Khaira are particularly troubling for Betts, who says honest contractors are struggling to recruit new employees. While surging demand for lumber in China promises to create a boom across B.C.'s forestry sector, the number of job applications to silviculture companies has been steadily dropping.

"This has been just horrible for our industry," Betts said. "We're not slave-drivers.... You can make a good living in tree-planting if you're willing to work hard."

Government implements new requirements for contractors

For his part, Khaira owner Khalid Bajwa denies that his company drastically underbids competitors for jobs.

"These bids are only a couple thousands dollars less. If these bids are too low, why are they awarding me contracts?" he told

He says lowball bids are the only way he can compete.

"To run the business, we have to take some extra steps," he said.

Bajwa also denies mistreating his workers, and says he doesn't plan to change anything about his company's operations when the ban on Khaira is lifted. He plans to appeal the decision ordering him to pay his former employees in court.

The Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations says that bidders on government contracts must meet safety guidelines and generally provide evidence of successful completion of similar jobs before winning a contract.

"Whether it is a silviculture contract or other type, contracts are awarded to the lowest qualified and compliant bidder, not just the bidder with the lowest price," the ministry said in an email.

In response to conditions at the Khaira camps, an inter-agency government group developed new guidelines requiring inspections of sites within 48 hours of being set up and stricter requirements for contractors to report to health authorities, the Employment Standards Branch and WorkSafe BC.

"The increased sharing of information among ministries and other key agencies provide a clearer picture of a contract's progress and when to inspect contract operations, as well as allowing the necessary ministries and agencies to work together to address any problem contracts," the ministry said.