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Immigrant tree planters win $229,000 judgment

Deprived of food, water and toilets, 30 workers, most recent immigrants, have been rescued from a remote forestry camp in Golden, B.C. The "nightmare" has the BC Federation of Labour calling on the government to step up monitoring and enforcement of safety standards.

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Business and labour groups are calling on the B.C. government to increase its scrutiny of provincial contracts with tree-planting companies following a $229,000 ruling against a Surrey-based company.

"This is an indictment of the system, not just an injustice for these workers," said B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair during a news conference Monday morning.

The B.C. Employment Standards Branch ruling ordered tree-planting firm Khaira Enterprises Ltd. to pay 57 tree planters - most of them landed immigrants from Republic of Congo and Burundi - back wages, including compensation for poor working conditions.

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The tree-planting company, run by Khalid Mahmood Bajwa and Hardilpreet Singh Sidhu, was operating on a provincial government contract near Golden last summer when several of its workers were found to be living in squalid working conditions. The government pulled its contract with Khaira, and banned the company from bidding for other contracts for two years.

Mr. Sinclair praised the ruling against Khaira as a "victory" for employees but blasted the B.C. government for its failure to properly address the "systemic problem" of companies infringing workers' rights "despite six agencies being in charge of inspecting."

"While this case is an egregious one and one of the worst ones, it goes on in a lot of other places," he said. "If you don't crack down on this stuff, then it continues on and I guarantee that it will happen again. The ball is in the government's court."

The Western Silviculture Contractors' Association, an organization that represents the province's tree-planting contractors to both provincial and federal governments, said it also believes heightened scrutiny is needed.

John Betts, the association's executive director, called for tighter inspection of government contract submissions to avoid situations like the Khaira Enterprises case. According to Mr. Betts, B.C.'s policy of accepting the lowest bid for the job often poses serious problems in the industry. He said that planting companies like Khaira that submit low-cutting contract offers to the government hurt not just workers but also the industry as a whole. "Being able to underpay or not pay your workers or to not run a proper camp gives you a real advantage in the marketplace."

Mr. Betts criticized the government for its failure to properly scrutinize these companies that are "giving the industry a terrible black eye that it doesn't really deserve."

B.C. Minister of Forests, Lands and Mines, Pat Bell, said the Khaira Enterprises case demonstrates that an effective monitoring system is in place.

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"We discovered the camp, we determined that it wasn't successful and we reported it to the Ministry of Labour and the RCMP," Mr. Bell said. "Despite the fact that something happened that probably shouldn't have happened, it was reacted to quickly. Khaira will not be able to do this again."

Mr. Bell said the province has a certification process where contractors must "pass muster" to be able to bid on contracts, including safety certifications. He also said that there are no plans to re-assess the province's contract awarding process.

"We have a competitive tendering process and I think the public expects us to get best value for taxpayers' dollars," he said. "While I am not proud of the fact that Khaira created the environment and situation that was encountered, I do think that it was dealt with decisively."

Editor's note: Khalid Mahmood Bajwa is a co-owner of Khaira Enterprises Ltd., while Karpal Singh is a B.C. employment standards officer, who investigated the firm's treatment of its tree-planting employees. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story. This online version has been corrected.

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