Khaira Enterprises Ltd. will be back before the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal this week facing allegations that it kept forestry workers in slave-like conditions at a remote camp near Golden.
The company's practices have been the focus of the hearings. But the operator had a silent partner – the provincial government.
Government documents, some never before publicly released, chronicle how an arm of the Ministry of Forests repeatedly hired the company to do forestry work despite concerns about substandard camps, because Khaira underbid its competitors.
Before a group of workers was found stranded in the bush – hungry, injured, and without pay – in July of 2010, government officials had some strong clues about how Khaira managed to keep its costs down.
Documents recently released through Freedom of Information show the company had been cited for shoddy work in 2008. "It is my opinion and experience, Khaira is not capable of successfully managing and completing large planting contracts. We gave them lots of chances to improve [too many in hindsight]," wrote a government official. The company was suspended from bidding on planting contracts for two years.
In 2010, the company won another tree-planting contract from the government's B.C. Timber Sales (BCTS) office and set up camp on Texada Island. Even before work began, concerns were raised about the company's low bid and its ability to carry out the work on steep terrain with an inexperienced crew.
"Well, the planting contract started today on Texada and issues are coming to light," the area forester wrote in an e-mail to ministry officials on March 17. "The police were called as locals were concerned about the planting crews."
The health inspector found overcrowded sleeping accommodations with up to a dozen people in unventilated trailers, unsanitary food and inadequate toilets and showers. The RCMP found the African workers "clearly uncomfortable, cold and hungry." They were provided one meal a day, and hadn't been paid. They were wearing street shoes and had nowhere to dry their soggy clothes.
A WorkSafe BC report on the Khaira case notes that for several years prior to the Texada Island incident, BCTS personnel were aware that the company's camps could be substandard, and refers to safety violation findings going back to 1996. But the agency's inspectors often didn't know where the crews were working and conducted very few inspections in the company's 14-year history.
The working conditions that are now being examined by the human-rights tribunal are similar to those found at Khaira's Texada Island camp months earlier.
A group of African workers were discovered at a campsite near Golden, one with an obvious head wound. They said they had not eaten for two days. Inspectors then checked the camp – the kitchen had no floor, the drinking water was untreated, the camp had only one shower, one toilet, and no wash basins for more than 30 people. The tribunal will hear the final arguments this week. The owners have denied the workers were mistreated or discriminated against.
Sarah Khan, the lawyer representing 55 Africans who had worked for Khaira, said the tribunal has mostly examined the role of the contractor. But, she adds, "the evidence we presented was that the low-bid policy of the B.C. Forest Ministry created the conditions for the discrimination to occur."
As the case winds down, Forests Minister Steve Thomson says he regrets his government's role in failing to protect those workers. He hasn't met with them but if he did, "I would apologize," he said. "Clearly there was not the appropriate oversight."
He said he is confident that the situation won't be repeated. Work camps are now inspected, and other changes have been made to ensure better protection of itinerant workers.
John Betts, executive director of the Western Silvicultural Contractors' Association, says there have been improvements, but the low-bid system continues to encourage employers to cut corners. And Norm Macdonald, the NDP forestry critic, is unmoved by the minister's assurances. "These people were clearly exploited, and the conditions that allowed that to happen are still there."
Mr. Thomson's apology is a start. He has not persuaded those closest to the case, however, that it cannot happen again.