The system failed a group of immigrant tree-planters who say they were treated like slaves at a camp near Golden, B.C. last year, according to a critical report from the province's forest safety watchdog.

Forest Safety Ombudsman Roger Harris released his report Wednesday into what went wrong at the Khaira Enterprises camp, where workers say they were fed rotten food and didn't receive their pay cheques.

"It is an inescapable fact that the Khaira camps were allowed to operate unsafely for too long and that the system failed those workers," the report says.

"There was significant evidence of the conditions that existed for these workers that was ignored, discounted or passed on to other agencies, which allowed for the situation to continue."

The situation at the Golden camp reached a head in July 2010, when government officials inspected the site and were told that the workers hadn't been fed for two days in retribution for an informal strike over non-payment of wages.

Most of the workers were new immigrants from Africa, and one was bleeding from the head when officials arrived. They told authorities that they were living without toilets or clean drinking water, were physically abused and had been subjected to racial discrimination.

The RCMP are currently investigating the death of a worker at the Golden camp.

Harris's report blames the "intolerable" conditions at the camp on several problems with the provincial government's process for awarding tree-planting contracts and monitoring work once it's underway.

One of the biggest problems, he says, is the lack of enforcement of health, labour and safety regulations at work sites. A different government body is responsible for each set of regulations, but they don't always communicate with each other.

"It appears that ... no single body within government was monitoring contracts and the multiple issues that may arise about a specific contractor," the report says.

"Even though there were multiple indiscretions across a range of issues, individually each indiscretion was not severe enough to warrant shutting down the operation.

Harris points out that the private sector seems to have come up with a more useful system for policing contracts, assigning one person or office to rigorously monitor safety and compliance with regulations.

Another key problem is the tendency to award government contracts to the lowest bidder, according to Harris. He suggests that contractors should be required to submit full proposals, outlining in detail their plans for completing the project.

"A proposal-driven model is especially valuable where the work entails difficult or dangerous conditions," the report says.

Harris also takes issue with a lack of training for new workers, the process for notifying authorities when camps are set up and the system for tracking contractors' past performance. The report makes 13 recommendations for improving the system.

New tree-planting company established at Khaira address

Khaira has been banned from bidding on government projects until September 2012.

But the ombudsman's report claims that a new company with the same Surrey address as the banned company has popped up in the government system.

Company owner Khalid Bajwa denies setting up a new tree-planting company, and says his partner Hardilpreet Singh Sidhu isn't responsible, either.

"I didn't have any other company," Bajwa told "We are broke right now.... We don't have any capacity to open a new business."

Khaira was ordered in June to pay 58 former workers $236,800 in unpaid wages by the Employment Standards Branch, but Bajwa says he will appeal that decision in court.

He says he plans to get back into business as soon as possible and would welcome more frequent and thorough inspections of his operations.

"Anyone is welcome to come inspect the camp. When we started the [Golden] project, we sent them a notice -- they should have to come to the site," he said.

Bajwa denies that workers were mistreated at Khaira camps, and accuses the unpaid tree-planters of dumping seedlings rather than planting them.

"I have big headache in my head right now," he said. "I'm not corrupt, believe me. I'm a very honest guy."

Report should have gone further: industry

John Betts, executive director of the Western Silviculture Contractors' Association, says that the ombudsman's report is "constructive" but isn't quite damning enough of the government system.

"He could have excoriated the government more; we might have wanted to see him draw their obvious failures out," he said.

"The government did not enforce its own regulations, and that's why we're so frustrated with the behaviour of the government."

The WCSA has been warning the government about potential safety problems at Khaira sites since 2009, Betts says. He believes that a tendency to accept the lowest bidder for government projects will continue to encourage inexperienced and incompetent contractors.

"They figure that they fixed the problem when they shut Khaira down, and they didn't," he said.

The ombudsman's report did have a few recommendations for the WSCA, suggesting that the association should establish a code of conduct for the industry and encourage professionalism among its members.

While Khaira has never been a member of the WSCA, Betts says he fully supports Harris's suggestions.

"We have considered them in the past and think they're good ideas. We are going to take these recommendations very seriously," Betts said.

The Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations told in an email that it welcomes the ombudsman's report, and is already addressing some of its recommendations.

The ministry says it is working with other groups to prevent worker abuse, stressing that it isn't the only body responsible for problems at Khaira.

"Safety is a shared responsibility. A number of ministries and safety agencies all have important roles to play in ensuring that silviculture contractors and operators act in the best interests of their workers," the ministry said.