British Columbia

55 tree planters win $700K over 'slave-like' discrimination in B.C.

The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal has ruled the operators of a tree-planting business in Golden, B.C., racially discriminated against 55 workers from Congo in 2010.

B.C. Human Rights Tribunal rules Khaira Enterprises racially discriminated against Congolese workers

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      The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal has ruled the operators of a tree-planting business in Golden, B.C., racially discriminated against 55 workers from Congo in 2010.

      Khaira Enterprises has been ordered to pay each worker $10,000 for injury to dignity and self-respect plus $1,000 per 30-day period worked or portion thereof between March 17, 2010, and June 17, 2010.

      Tribunal member Norman Trerise says in his 114-page ruling that Khalid Bajwa​ and Hardilpreet (Sunny) Sidhu, the owners of Khaira Enterprises, taunted and harassed the 55 workers with racial slurs and had a blatant disregard for employment standards.

      "Both [Bajwa and Sunny] have been found, in this decision, to have engaged in conduct which is discriminatory on a basis of race, colour and place of origin and on the basis of sex," said Trerise's ruling.

      "I find therefore that the complaint is fully justified against Khaira, Bajwa and Sunny."

      Trerise ruled all the workers experienced some form of adverse treatment from their employers, including lack of payment, hours of work, poor camp condition and other issues.

      Moka Balikama is one of the former tree planters who say that they were forced to live in cramped substandard conditions at a camp near Golden, B.C. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)

      "All of these circumstances, and particularly, the lack of payment and the consistent racial harassment satisfy me that the discriminatory actions of the respondents impacted the complainants significantly, causing them embarrassment, a degree of depression, frustration and loss of self esteem."

      The tree planters worked in a camp in Golden, in southeast B.C., in 2010, until it was shut down by the provincial Ministry of Forests, when the planters complained to ministry staff that they hadn't had anything to eat for two days.

      The ruling said that the case was clear, there were open racial taunts and payment of wages was drawn along racial, slave-like lines.

      Camp conditions akin to slavery

      All of the tree planters are from Congo, but are now permanent residents of Canada with refugee status. Their story emerged from the camp in Golden in the summer of 2010.   

      The treeplanters alleged they were forced to live in cramped conditions inside shipping containers in the camp. (CBC)
      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 for their work.

      One of the workers testified that the camp was divided down racial lines, and that black employees were forced to plant on rougher terrain and were fed inferior food.

      But the company owners, Khalid Bajwa and Hardilpreet Sidhu, who have since declared bankruptcy, denied the claims.

      "No attempt has been made to justify any of the facts which I have found to have occurred and which I have found to constitute discrimination," said Trerise's ruling Friday.

      "The respondents fail to establish a bona fide occupational requirement for their conduct."

      In February 2011, Khaira Enterprises was ordered by B.C.'s Employment Standards Branch to pay its workers $236,800.

      By November 2011, the branch was able to distribute $127,102 to many of the claimants — but the rest of the money remains unpaid owing to the company's bankruptcy.

      Chance of receiving damages 'remote'

      It seems unlikely the workers will receive any of the money awarded by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, a fact acknowledged in the ruling.

      "The chances of them actually receiving any money over and above that already obtained by the ESB on their behalf was extremely remote," said Trerise's ruling.

      Co-owner of Khaira Enterprises, Khalid Bajwa, has denied discriminating against the workers. (CBC)
      In 2011, a report by the forest safety ombudsman, prompted by the tree planters' case, found the B.C. government was failing to protect workers in the province's silviculture industry.

       Ombudsman Roger Harris said there was significant evidence that there were unacceptable, substandard and unsafe conditions in the workplace, and no significant government action was taken to stop the operations.

      Jim Sinclair, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, says the provincial government should pay the tree planters.

      "The provincial government failed to enforce the rules and take care of these people and now they need to step up to the plate, apologize to these workers for what happened in B.C. and pay the money that's owed," said Sinclair.

      Sinclair said the government had contracted Khaira Enterprises to work for the province, and it doesn't take much imagination to see they were working for all British Columbians.

      "They've hung in and they now deserve to be paid. The small amount of money that they are owed as a result of this  decision, the government needs to pay the money and come clean."

      On mobile? Click here to read the full B.C. Human Rights Commission ruling

      With files from CBC News


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