A human rights tribunal will hear about the plight of a group of African tree planters found working in squalid conditions at a camp near Golden, B.C., three years after the camp was discovered and closed down.
A human rights complaint against Khaira Enterprises, the silviculture contractor who ran the camps, was filed by the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC); it will be heard by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal starting Sept. 30, 2013.
“The human rights complaint is really in our view about the discrimination that we think was at the root of the treatment of these workers that resulted in all the other violations,” said Eugene Kung of BCPIAC. “They’re not separate. They all stem from the same work conditions, the same work camps.”
BCPIAC has been representing the workers legally since their ordeal began in 2010 when 28 workers, mostly of African descent, were found at a camp on Bluewater Creek, 40 kilometres west of Golden, with no safe drinking water and no toilets. They slept in shipping containers, cleared brush seven days a week for 10-14 hours with minimal breaks and were poorly fed.
One of the tree planters, Santokh Singh Kooner, died of alcohol poisoning at the Canada West RV Park near Revelstoke on June 24, 2010.
The human rights complaint claims the poor working conditions were racially motivated. Kung said the African workers were segregated from non-African employees.
“They were given different living conditions, different food, different work conditions. Just different treatment all around,” he said. “And not to mention verbal and emotional abuse that was often laden with racist language. It’s hard to ignore the fact these guys were vulnerable refugees from Africa played a large role in the abuse they suffered.”
The hearing is set for five weeks and many of the workers will be testifying about the conditions at the camp and the treatment they received. “A big piece for the workers themselves is to have the discrimination they’ve experienced recognized and acknowledged by the human rights tribunal and hopefully have some broader systemic remedies that can make the situation better in the future,” said Kung.
The human rights case is not the only one that resulted from the discovery of the work camps.
In 2011, the Employment Standards Branch ordered Khaira pay the 57 workers $228,000 in back wages. That number has since increased to more than $260,000, said Kung, and less than $100,000 has been paid.
WorksafeBC fined the company $9,122.75 for failing to comply with several health and safety violations, including failing to conduct a risk assessment of its remote work locations.
As well, Khalid Bajwa, the owner of Khaira Enterprises, is also facing criminal fraud and forgery charges in provincial court.
According to court documents obtained by the Times Review, the two forgery charges allege that Bajwa forged two fire suppression certificate documents, including signatures of a Revelstoke man. The two fraud charges allege he defrauded Tom Austin, representative of B.C. Timber Sales, and Scott King of Louisiana Pacific Corp. Both organizations are involved in issuing silviculture contracts to subcontractors like Khaira.
The case is scheduled for a three-day trial in Surrey court from Sept. 10-12, 2013.