They came to Canada for better lives but instead, dozens of African tree planters say they were treated like slaves, subjected to violence, fed rotten food, left to sleep in shipping containers and were not even paid.

The company that employed the men as tree planters in rural British Columbia has now been ordered to pay $228,000 in back wages to employees. Khaira Enterprises, of Surrey, B.C., has also been fined $3,500 by the B.C. Employment Standards Branch for its treatment of the workers.

"It was a kind of slave life," one of the men, Moka Balikama, told reporters in Vancouver. "I swear to God, it was so bad, trust me. We ate some expired food. Can you imagine? We slept in a container, with no washroom, no toilet."

The 34-year-old said Monday that he arrived from the Congo with hopes of providing for his family back home but soon realized that wasn't going to happen.

A human rights complaint has been launched against the company for alleged racism, physical and verbal violence and sexual harassment. RCMP are also investigating the death of a worker at one of several remote tree planting camps run by Khaira.

Balikama said up to seven people shared a shipping container at the camp near Golden, B.C. -- one of several reforestation contracts Khaira won throughout the province, including projects on Texada Island, near Powell River and Revelstoke. The 57 workers employed by Khaira still have not been paid for their work between March and July last year, the employment standards branch found. Advocates say the workers -- all permanent residents or Canadian citizens -- have also not received federal Employment Insurance payments, despite evidence forwarded last October that they worked more than enough hours to qualify for payment.

Balikama said he and his co-workers were left homeless, and he is now living with a friend.

The camp in Golden, B.C., was shut down after it was discovered by the Forests Ministry last July.

The workers' plight came to light only because a group of fishermen reported a fire at the camp during the high-risk forest fire season, prompting officials to investigate.

The telephone number for Khaira was out of service and the company's website was offline Monday, other than to say the company has been a leader in reforestation since 1994.

The company was added to the Forests Ministry's list of disqualified bidders on Sept. 2, 2010, after the workers were discovered. The suspension expires Sept. 2, 2012.

Forests Minister Pat Bell said the province has withheld payments and a deposit owed to Khaira, and will work with the Employment Standards Branch to see the funds distributed to the employees should the company fail to make the ordered payments.

"We're confident we can now ensure that the employees are paid the amounts of money that are owed to them," Bell said.

"I'm not expecting this to take a long time to have it resolved. I'm hopeful that the employees will be paid up quite quickly and be able to go on their way."

Bell said the company has closed down but the ban applies to the company principals, as well, so the owners or operators cannot simply apply for contacts under a new name. Once the current two-year ban on Khaira and its owners expires next year, he said it will be reviewed to determine whether further action is necessary.

"There's no question that the allegations heard by the Employment Standards Branch are very, very serious. We take them seriously, as well," Bell said.

But the minister said he is confident that it was an isolated incident.

"The vast majority of our contractors are professional in the way that they behave. They do very good work, they have very good camp conditions," he said. "It's not the industry that we had back in the 1990s and late 1980s, which was really quite different."

Ros Salvador, of British Columbia Public Interest Advocacy Centre, a non-profit group of lawyers who deal with human rights and poverty issues, said the employment standards branch also found that Khaira had created false documents to try to justify its non-payment of wages.

"(Employment Insurance) is continuing to rely on Khaira's false documents to deny workers EI premiums," she said. "EI is simply continuing the economic disaster that was instigated by Khaira and I don't think we can accept that in our society."

Salvador said the B.C. government, which awarded the company several reforestation contracts, has a lot to answer for because Khaira already had "a horrible track record." WorkSafe B.C. investigated the camps last fall and found 20 health and safety violations, she said.

Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, said he was appalled that the branch fined the employer only $3,500 for violating seven employment standards.

"That's not a punishment or a deterrent, that's a reward," he said. "What it says to the employer is `Fly at it. By the way, the only downside to not being successful is you get caught and fined $3,500 for stealing a quarter million dollars."'

Sinclair said the federation has asked the government to set up an independent review of what happened in this case and deal with enforcement of labour standards in the industry. He said the government must address the "systemic problem."