Tree planters live on the street as they wait for wages
Published Wednesday, July 20, 2011 8:20PM PDT
A group of tree planters who say they were treated like "animals" have yet to receive the more than $230,000 in wages they're owed by a B.C. company, and their lawyer says the government should pay.
Khaira Enterprises Ltd. owes back pay to 58 workers, many of whom are impoverished new arrivals from African countries, but the company has yet to pony up a cent of the money, according to lawyer Ros Salvador of the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre.
"A lot of these people are living in absolute poverty -- many are homeless. It's quite a dire situation," she told ctvbc.ca.
Last month, the B.C. Employment Standards Tribunal upheld a February decision ordering Khaira to pay its former employees $236,800 in lost wages plus an administrative penalty of $3,500.
Some of the 25 workers Salvador represents are owed as much as $12,000 and have not received any employment insurance since the province shut down their work site near Golden last July.
"It's really huge amounts of money for people who are living in poverty," Salvador said.
Moka Balikama, a 35-year-old immigrant from the Congo, told ctvbc.ca that he is owed $4,000 and has subsisted on food provided by the BC Federation of Labour and other donors since the camp shut down.
"I'm living with a friend, but he told me that he'd help me only for a couple days," Balikama told ctvbc.ca.
He doesn't know where he'll go next, but says he's spent the last year searching for a job while he surfs couches.
"What I would ask is for justice to be done -- that is it," he said.
"There is a proverb in my country: Your property is your property. I know that was my money and I know it's going to come back to me."
The telephone number for Khaira Enterprises is out of service, and the company's lawyer Pir Indar Sahota is currently out of the country, according to his receptionist.
But Salvador says that the company's bank account is empty, and it's up to the government to pick up the slack.
She believes that the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations failed to properly investigate working conditions on past Khaira job sites before accepting the company's low-ball bid for the Golden job.
"Our view is that the Ministry of Forests should pay the full amount of money owing," Salvador said.
"The money they saved should be in the workers' pockets, not with the ministry."
The Employment Standards Branch is holding $105,000 in trust for the workers, but the Ministry of Labour told ctvbc.ca in an email that the money won't be released until the appeal process is complete, which could take several months.
"At that time, the ESB will also take all possible steps to ensure any remaining wages owing will be collected, which could include placing property liens, filing a determination in court or seizing assets," the ministry email reads.
Concerns about Khaira raised months before camp shut down
More than 30 workers were removed from the Golden site in July 2010 in response to what the labour ministry described as "substandard conditions," after authorities discovered they had no toilets and only creek water to drink.
The workers said they were fed rotten food and forced to sleep seven people to a single shipping container.
Khaira was operating a number of camps in B.C. based on two contracts in the summer of 2010, but the company was banned from government work for a year after conditions in the Golden camp were discovered.
Documents that Salvador obtained through an access to information request show that the government was aware of problems at another company's sites by the start of the tree-planting season in March 2010.
By the end of the month, inspections of the company's camp on Texada Island had revealed as many as 15 people were sleeping in a single trailer, with no heat and not enough washrooms.
An official with Vancouver Coastal Health said that the company was only providing workers with one meal per day, and employees were cleaning themselves with cups of water.
Documents provided to ctvbc.ca also reveal that the Western Silviculture Contractor's Association, a rival bidder, raised serious concerns with the ministry about Khaira's safety practices even earlier, in February 2010.
"I honestly can't imagine what the low bid [Khaira] was thinking," one email from the WSCA reads.
"You can't price the work or develop a safe plan if you don't have a sufficient experience with this type of work. In this case, it is pretty clear that the low bid missed something, or probably many things."
In an email to ctvbc.ca, the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations said that it took "immediate steps" to address workers' health and safety after conditions at the Golden camp were discovered.
Racism continues to sting
A year after his ordeal in Golden, Balikama says the worst part of the experience was how the workers were treated by their bosses.
"I have never been treated like an animal back home," he said. "What hurt most was when everybody -- Canadians -- said there's no racism in Canada, but that's just not true."
In January, the workers filed a human rights complaint against Khaira, but it has yet to be heard by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.
Despite the racial taunts and unfair treatment he experienced, Balikama says he wants to stay in Canada.
"I would like to stay in B.C., because I would not like to go through more trouble," he said.