The B.C. government is failing to protect workers in the province's silviculture industry, according to a new report by the forest safety ombudsman.
The report, issued Wednesday, was prompted by the rescue of a group of tree planters from a work site near Golden last summer after smoke from their camp was spotted by boaters on a nearby lake.
When officials from the provincial Forests Ministry arrived at the site, the tree planters told them they had not eaten in two days, were living in squalor and were not getting paid by Surrey-based Khaira Enterprises.
The workers were primarily new immigrants from Africa who spoke little English.
In his report, B.C. Forest Safety Ombudsman Roger Harris said the conditions at the camp raise questions about the lack of monitoring by provincial officials.
"The situation that occurred to these workers is unacceptable to anyone, quite frankly, in Canada," he said.
"The Khaira situation, which is clearly intolerable on many levels, raises questions about the safety of workers in the silviculture industry in B.C.
"What makes the Khaira situation particularly disturbing is that throughout the operation of their camps, there was significant evidence — from a number of sources — that there were unacceptable, substandard and unsafe conditions in the workplace, and no significant action was taken to stop the operations," he said.
"It is an inescapable fact that the Khaira camps were allowed to operate unsafely for too long and that the system failed those workers," Harris said.
Systemic problems plague industry
Harris says while Khaira was the catalyst for the review, there are routine and systemic problems in the forest industry as a whole, including the way government contracts are awarded and the lack of government enforcement around safety standards.
"The regulations are there, but this was an example of where everyone took care of their own silo and no one took care of the worker," he told CBC News.
Harris is now calling for a new, single entity to do routine on-site inspections of tree-planting camps to ensure laws are enforced.
He also recommends the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations develop a more accurate system for keeping track of the location of silviculture camps, and establish contract qualification criteria so that projects are not just awarded to the lowest bidder.
Harris also recommends that programs be developed to ensure workers have a comprehensive understanding of their legal rights and that those rights are clearly posted in the workplace.
Enforcement still lacking
Despite the report's findings, lawyers for the Khaira workers say the ombudsman's conclusions fail to recommend new rules for enforcement.
Earlier this year, Khaira was ordered to pay its workers nearly a quarter of a million dollars by B.C.'s Employment Standards Branch.
But many of its former workers are struggling to make ends meet, and some are even homeless, while they continue to await payment.