African refugee tree planters awarded overdue EI payments

Tree planters found working in sub-standard conditions at camps near Revelstoke and Golden awarded EI payments after six years in court.

More than 50 employees of Khaira Enterprises were found to be working in substandard conditions at tree planting work camps.

A group of African refugee tree planters who were found living in miserable conditions at a camp near Golden were award their EI payments after more than five years in court.

According to the BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC), who represented the tree planters in their fight with the Canada Revenue Agency, the Minister of National Revenue ruled that the workers’ unpaid overtime and travel time should count towards their insurable hours. The workers are now waiting for Service Canada to act on the ruling in order to be paid the overtime they are due.

The ruling is the latest in the long-running saga of 57 workers, many of whom were refugees from Africa, who were employed as tree planters for Khaira Enterprises and worked in the Revelstoke and Golden areas.

Their ordeal began in 2010 when the workers were found at a camp on Bluewater Creek, 40 kilometres west of Golden, with no safe drinking water and no toilets. They slept in cramped shipping containers, worked long hours without days off and were poorly fed.

One planter died of alcohol poisoning at the Canada West RV Park near Revelstoke on June 24, 2010.

The scandal result in numerous rulings against Khaira in labour court and in front of the human rights tribunal. The owner is also facing criminal charges.

“This is the latest victory in a long saga of legal proceedings for the workers, who have endured almost six years of investigations and appeals”, said Sarah Khan, a staff lawyer with BCPIAC, in a news release. “The workers have previously been successful in unpaid wage claims before the BC Employment Standards Branch (ESB) and Employment Standards Tribunal, and in race discrimination proceedings before the BC Human Rights Tribunal.”

PHOTO: One of the shipping containers African tree planters were forced to sleep in while working for Khaira Enterprises. ~ Photo contributed

In 2011, the Employment Standards Branch ordered the company pay the workers $260,000 in back wages. WorksafeBC fined the company $9,122.75 for failing to comply with health and safety standards.

In 2014, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ruled that Khaira discriminated against the African tree planters. Each tree planter was awarded $10,000 in compensation, plus $1,000 for each month they worked for Khaira.

Khalid Bajwa, the owner of Khaira Enterprises, is set to stand trial in March on fraud and forgery charges related to the tree planting contracts.

Khan said the workers were still owed back wages and the money awarded by the human rights tribunal.

In the EI case, Canada Revenue Agency initially ruled travel time between campsites and unpaid overtime did not count towards time worked, meaning the workers did not have enough hours to qualify for EI. The latest ruling changed that decision.

“It is important for silviculture contractors and workers to know that CRA views travel time to and from camps or motels to the worksite to be insurable for EI purposes,” stated John Betts, the executive director of the Western Silviculture Contractors Association. “This is consistent with the BC Employment Standards Regulation for silviculture workers, which specifies that time spent traveling between worksites and camps or motels must be considered hours of work for calculating minimum wage for piece work employees.”

Ngakira Gazire, one of the tree planters who is owed money, stated he was happy they finally won the EI appeal.

I hope that Service Canada issues decisions quickly as we have waited a long time to get EI for 2010,” he said.