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Tree planters still waiting for pay, lawyer says

One year after a group of tree planters were found living and working under deplorable conditions in a B.C. forestry camp, they still have not been paid their wages or employment insurance, said a lawyer who represents some of them.

In February, the Employment Standards Branch ordered tree-planting company Khaira Enterprises Ltd. to pay $236,800.52 in unpaid wages to 58 employees who had been brush clearing in Golden, B.C., last summer on a provincial government contract. The workers, mostly of African origin, were living in squalid conditions – working 15-hour days, sleeping in unventilated shipping containers – without adequate food, clean water or toilets. They were not fully paid for their labour then, and one year later, they are still waiting for their wages.

"Overall, [the workers] are in financial crisis," said lawyer Ros Salvador of the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre, who represents nearly 30 of the tree planters. "So people can't buy groceries, and several of my clients have been homeless at different times."

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Moka Balikama, 37, who worked at the Khaira camp last summer, said he is psychologically scarred.

"It was a kind of slavery life," said the Congo native. "When I came to Canada, I thought Canada was a land of chances and opportunities, but seeing some of my friends are now homeless. … I was not expecting this kind of life."

The Employment Standards Branch is holding trust money that B.C.'s Ministry of Forests has withheld from Khaira Enterprises. Before the money can be given to the employees, the branch must wait until all appeals are finished, said a statement released by the Ministry of Labour. The tree-planting company recently appealed the February determination, as did several employees.

"Currently, the ESB is holding approximately $105,000 in trust until the appeal process is complete," said the statement. "At that time, the ESB will also take all possible steps to ensure any remaining wages owing will be collected, which could include placing property liens, filing a determination in court or seizing assets. The appeal process can typically take several months to complete."

The workers also have not been able to receive employment insurance because the federal government has not corrected Khaira's false records of employment, Ms. Salvador said.

Khaira Enterprises owners Khalid Mahmood Bajwa and Hardilpreet Singh Sidhu could not be reached for comment. Their lawyer, Pir Indar Sahota, was also not available.

Ms. Salvador believes that, should Khaira Enterprises not have the funds to repay its former workers, the Ministry of Forests should cover the costs. Internal correspondence obtained by the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre indicate that the ministry had known about Khaira's mistreatment of employees as early as March, 2010.

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According to the documents, a Vancouver Coastal Health inspector had informed B.C. Timber Sales on March 18, 2010, that Khaira employees working at Texada Island were suffering poor working conditions. B.C. Timber Sales did its own inspection and found the Khaira camp "well below any acceptable standard."

But the Ministry of Forests did not take any effective action, Ms. Salvador said.

"The government should pay [these workers]," said Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour. "They were planting trees for the public on public lands and it's not their fault the government gave a contract to an operator with a terrible track record that ripped off its workers."

The Ministry of Forests did not return calls seeking comment.

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