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Tree planters vulnerable to mistreatment, labour leader tells tribunal

Moka Balikama, who filed the complaint on behalf of the workers, testified he worked 10 to 12 hours a day.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The president of the B.C. Federation of Labour says tree planters who worked in slave-like conditions and have since taken their case to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal were vulnerable to mistreatment.

"The circumstance they were working in was one of the more extremely vulnerable situations in a work site," Jim Sinclair told the tribunal Wednesday. "They travelled to places where there is no contact, where there isn't any place they can go to without the employer taking them. [And] they're 40 miles into the bush, which is in itself a vulnerable situation and a dangerous situation, to be honest."

Fifty tree planters originally from Africa have launched the human-rights case against their former employers, alleging they were forced to endure squalid conditions at the Golden, B.C., camp because they were black.

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The case opened Monday, with the lawyer representing the group saying black workers were forced to work on harder terrain than non-black workers. The lawyer, Sarah Khan, also said the workers received little or no pay, undercooked or expired food, untreated water and improper accommodation.

Mr. Sinclair testified Wednesday that the federation first learned of the situation at the camp through an anonymous phone call. He said the government institutions that should have protected the workers failed due to a lack of oversight and enforcement.

"This didn't drop from Mars into Golden. The series of events that led to this show that the system itself was broken," he said.

The Ministry of Forests shut down the camp in July, 2010. The province's Employment Standards Branch ordered the company, Khaira Enterprises Ltd., to repay $260,000 in wages in 2011. Ms. Khan has said some of that money has not been paid.

Khalid Bajwa and Hardilpreet Sidhu, the company's owners, have denied the workers were mistreated or discriminated against. Mr. Sidhu has said he was hurt by the allegations because he considered the workers his friends.

Moka Balikama, who filed the complaint on behalf of the workers, earlier testified he worked 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and was never paid on time. He also said the cost of food and accommodation was deducted from his earnings, though he had never agreed to that arrangement.

Mr. Balikama continued his testimony Wednesday, and was cross-examined by Mr. Bajwa. The hearing moved at a slow pace, as Mr. Bajwa continually asked questions without a clear direction or focus.

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"You have to ask those questions to get the answer you're seeking," adjudicator Norman Trerise said at one point. At another, he said, "I don't have a clue what you just asked."

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