Ministry of Forestry officials found workers stranded and maltreated in a work camp run by Khaira Enterprises. They found the camp only because they were investigating reports of illegal burning. They called in the Ministry of Labour and the RCMP. Workers were taken to Golden and given food by a local church.
After 28 immigrant workers were found living in terrible conditions at a workcamp west of Golden, B.C. Federation of Labour wants the provincial government to investigate Surrey-based Khaira Enterprises.
A Khaira Enterprises workcamp at Bluewater Creek, 40 km west of Golden, was shut down July 21, after a Conservation Officer and Ministry of Forests worker who were investigating reports of illegal burning.
Company owners and 28 workers were found at the squalid camp.
The workers had no money, no transportation and were unable to leave the remote site.
The RCMP was also called in to investigate.
“We have met with about a dozen people who worked at Khaira Enterprises this spring and summer and the stories they tell are absolutely shocking,” B.C> Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair said.
“We have pieced together a story that seems from another century.”
MLA for Burnaby-Edmonds and Opposition Critic to the Ministry of Labour, Raj Chouhan is calling for Minister of Labour Murray Coell, to investigate Khaira Enterprises and what was found at Bluewater Creek.
“The workers were found in a very deplorable situation and the only way we can find out what happened there is for the Minister to do an investigation.”
Chouhan said conditions he heard of include no clean drinking water, no toilets and workers being treated poorly by the contractors.
“In Canada we should have the decency to treat our workers as human beings,” he said.
“They [the workers] were at the mercy of a contractor that was treating them like animals.”
Chouhan said the situation for B.C.’s workers has been deteriorating since the B.C. Liberals came into power.
“In their first term, they made a dramatic overhaul of the B.C. Employment Standards Act and with the budget cuts, many enforcement officers that would have been out there investigating these kinds of situations were laid off.”
Chouhan said in the 2009-2010 budget there is an additional 18.3 per cent in cuts to the budget of the Employment Standards Branch.
“As a result, their capacity to investigate these situations becomes even less.”
Chouhan said he hopes the Ministry of Labour has enough evidence to lay charges and that Khaira Enterprises.
“My other concern is when an agreement is signed (between the government and the company they employ), what kind of background checks are being done? Do they have certain measures in place to ensure the protection of B.C.’s workers? I am concerned that with all of the cutbacks to the budget, the government does not have the ability to do these things.”
WorkSafe B.C. has also launched an investigation, WorkSafe B.C.’s Donna Freeman confirmed.
“We were contacted by the Ministry of Labour the day that the RCMP were contacted to assist Forestry in removing the workers (and the company) from the camp,” Freeman said.
“We have jurisdiction over workplace health and safety so this was a challenge to us as many of the allegations were around living conditions, sanitation, cleanliness, payment of wages.”
Golden/Field RCMP Sgt. Troy Durand said the workers were never in police custody. He explained the RCMP were originally going to the scene to investigate an assault in the camp a few nights prior.
“The RCMP were notified that Forestry was going to the site [to evict the company and its workers] and they asked us to assist them in keeping the peace as they were evicting the people at the site.”
After workers were removed from the site, with nowhere to go and no money, Golden’s Trinity Lutheran Church was contacted to see if they could help.
Joan, of the Trinity Lutheran Church spoke with The Star about the experience.
“When it happened, I was asked to help provide food, but also speak to (and provide comfort) to the workers. They, being from the Congo, spoke French and I speak French. Speaking in French seemed to make them relax a little.”
Joan relays the “horrendous” experiences workers shared with her.
“They told me that they were sleeping in shipping containers and they had to shower outside, near the latrines,” she says.
“The conditions were horrendous. The Ministry [Forests Ministry] said that the workcamp conditions were like that of a third world country.”
Joan goes on to say the men said they were expected to work seven days a week and if they didn’t work a day, they would not be fed. They told her they had been working since mid-March without being paid properly.
“When I was contacted by Social Services, I was met (at the church) with 25 men who hadn’t eaten in two days because they had decided to go on strike.”
Joan did her best to cook a meal for the men, whose appetites has been affected by the lack of food, and used the church’s grocery store gift certificates to purchase lunches for the next day for the 25 men.
The men stayed at the church while they waited for Social Services to arrange their transportation out of Golden and while they made their statements to WorkSafe BC.
“On the next night I made a spaghetti dinner for them and by that time they had their appetites back. they were so excited to get food,” Joan said.
She said the men had tried to cash their paycheques, but were unable because they bounced.
“One man said that he wasn’t going to try and cash his check because he just couldn’t afford another NSF charge.”
Joan was happy the church was able to help the men.
“It could have been anyone. That’s the situation for many people working out in the bush.”
Perhaps most disturbing, she said, was a comment made by one of the men: “I didn’t like what happened, but at least it happened in Canada, so these people will get caught. In any other country in the world, we’d be forgotten.”
Freeman said WorkSafe has taken statements from the workers and initiated their investigation.
“That is a key part of our investigation. All of the information we are gathering will not be made public until the investigation is complete.”
Freeman said speaking to Khaira Enterprises is an important part of their investigation.
The B.C. Federation of Labour release said former Khaira employees report:
• no safe drinking water at camp, workers told to drink from a nearby creek;
• no toilet facilities at the camp;
• daily shortage of food and malnourished workers, breakfast consisted of bread, jam and peanut butter, no lunch provided;
• improper food handling, unrefrigerated chicken served most nights;
• unsafe transportation of workers in overloaded and unsafe vehicles;
• underpayment and non-payment of wages including cheques returned by banks due to insufficient funds;
• Employment Standards violations including the misrepresentation of hours worked;
• physical and verbal abuse of workers;
• workplace racism;
• death threats to workers;
• refusal of adequate medical treatment for injured workers; and
• failure to report workplace injuries to WCB.
Most of the Khaira workers are Canadian citizens or permanent residents originally from Burundi and the Republic of Congo.
“This camp was only discovered and shut down because of reports of an illegal fire during a fire ban,” Sinclair said.
“We need an independent investigation to explain how these working conditions were allowed to continue in British Columbia in this day and age so we can prevent it from happening again.”