B.C.’s Forest Safety Ombudsman Roger Harris today released his report exploring the failures that led to a squalid work camp that was discovered near Golden, B.C. a year ago.
About 30 workers, many of them recent immigrants from Africa, were found underfed, living in shipping containers at a camp without adequate cooking facilities, proper toilet facilities or other basic amenities. The hungry workers complained of abusive work conditions and lack of payment while working for Khaira Enterprises Ltd., who was working on a government brushing contract on crown land.
“This particular situation was completely unacceptable by any standard,” said Harris in a statement. “While The Khaira case is not typical of the silviculture industry, there was significant evidence – from a number of sources – that there were unacceptable, substandard, and unsafe conditions in the workplace, and no significant action was taken to correct the situation.”
The ombudsman’s July 27 report is entitled, If A Tree Falls in the Woods and No One is Around to Hear It. It cites numerous failures in the system that fostered a culture where these excessive abuses were possible. It also points to resulting ongoing issues in other forestry camps in B.C.
“All participants interviewed as part of compiling this report shared the perspective that the Khaira situation was totally unacceptable and expressed a sincere desire to work towards finding practical solutions,” Harris writes. “The Khaira situation has revealed a number of gaps within the industry.”
The report focuses on five key issues.
The first issue was a lack of a “useful and accurate” camp notification system. Vagaries in the existing system include inconsistent notification, poor inter-agency communication, lack of details on locations and duration of camps and overall inadequate monitoring. The report found the problems were far more widespread than just one bad apple. “Over the course of interviews with various government agencies, it became clear that lack of notification regarding the establishment and operation of campsites is not uncommon in the forest industry, and certainly not unique to the Khaira situation,” the report states.
The second key issue is the low-bid contract qualification system that makes cost the primary consideration when government contracts are awarded. The report suggests moving to a “proposal-driven” model. This would allow “prospective proponents to develop innovative plans to achieve contract objectives while continuing to improve safety conditions for workers and the public,” the report states.
The report also said government ministry staff seemed averse to making controversial decisions when it came to awarding contracts. “The public sector seems to be more risk-averse and less able to make decisions that may be considered ‘unfair’ to certain contractors,” the report also states.
The third key issue was a lack of a designated lead inspection agency to take charge of coordinating multi-agency inspections. The report said was a disconnect between public and private sector safety cultures. “In the public sector, various ministries and organizations appear to operate in silos and are focused solely on their own specific mandate,” the report states. “This means that there is no one person or group that effectively ‘takes the lead’ to act on the cumulative information gathered during camp inspections.”
The fourth key issue is a lack of adequate due diligence when checking to see if prospective contractors have the ability to do the work properly. The report recommends ensuring “that at the onset of awarding any contract, workers and companies have the skill-set and expertise to perform the job required.” The report recommends creating a database of contractors that monitors their past performance and safety certification.
The final key issue was ensuring that workers are aware of their rights, and that statements of these rights be posted at camps.
Overall, the report also finds many of these issues can be addressed through better monitoring of the system at the stage before a contract is awarded.
The Harris report also recommends silviculture industry associations such as the Western Silviculture Contractors Association (WSCA), “take a serious look at establishing some form of professional standards for their membership.”
The Ombudsman’s office describes itself as “an independent and impartial advisory voice that carries out all the responsibilities of the Ombudsman while also providing feedback to the B.C. Forest Safety Council on trends, issues, policies and practices.”
In a statement, Harris notes several other ongoing government investigations into the incident. “Our office supports the continued review of the Khaira situation by all involved bodies. It is essential that agencies work together in a cooperative way and that clear accountabilities be established so that the safety of workers becomes a collective responsibility. Otherwise, there is a risk that we will see more situations like Khaira, not less.”