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Deprived of food, water and toilets, 30 workers, most recent immigrants, were found in a remote forestry camp in Golden, B.C. (Globe files/Globe files)
Deprived of food, water and toilets, 30 workers, most recent immigrants, were found in a remote forestry camp in Golden, B.C. (Globe files/Globe files)

System failures endangered tree planters in B.C. camp: ombudsman Add to ...

Even before a group of tree planters was discovered living in squalor in a remote camp in the British Columbia wilderness, a host of provincial agencies were already well-aware of problems with the company awarded the contract by the provincial government, according to a report by the province's forest-safety ombudsman.

Even as significant evidence mounted showing the camp near Golden, B.C., was "substandard" in its operations, the report found no one sought to halt Khaira Enterprises until workers were accidentally found, hungry and without pay.

"It is an inescapable fact that the Khaira camps were allowed to operate unsafely for too long and that the system failed those workers," Ombudsman Roger Harris said in his report, released Wednesday.

Despite pinpointing numerous gaps, he said in an interview he doesn't believe the entire forestry industry is tainted or that it will take complex changes to provincial laws to address the problem.

"The more I look into this, quite frankly, there are regulations in place today that if they were enforced and had been enforced, the likelihood of Khaira happening would have been pretty unlikely," he said.

The investigation probed how the silviculture camp could have been allowed to deteriorate so dramatically, considering the Surrey-based contractor who hired the workers already had a poor record.

Workers rights advocates lauded the report for refusing to "sugar coat" claims the group of about 50 workers made after they were rescued July, 2010, from the camp near Golden, B.C., close to the Alberta boundary.

The workers, most of African heritage, have said they were subjected to physical abuse, fed rotten food and made to sleep in shipping containers.

One of them, Pasteur Nsekerabanyanka, said in an interview that the treatment at the camp was "inhumane ... it was like a return to slavery."

The 35-year-old, who was granted Canadian citizenship in May, said he felt oversight was absent.

"The government's focus was coming to check to make sure the trees were well-planted," he said through a translator. "But the government never came to talk to the workers to find out what's the reality we're experiencing here, what's actually going on."

The report makes 13 recommendations, such as changing the way forestry contracts are awarded so that contracts are not just handed to the lowest bidder.

It also recommends workers be trained about their rights, a better system is installed for tracking when and where camps are set up and improved communication between inspection agencies.

The report is aimed at preventing Khaira or other shady companies from closing shop only to open under a new name, Mr. Harris said.

"I'm not worried about any company coming back into the work force ... unless nothing changes," he said.

Ros Salvador, a lawyer representing 30 of the abused workers, called the report valuable but she's concerned the recommendations don't go far enough. For example, it calls for monitoring of companies rather than penalties like cancelling contracts.

"I think there needs to be real strong action on the part of the government, because in this case there were no immediate ramifications," she said.

"It needs to be set up so it isn't good business sense to conduct oneself like this."

In a statement, the Forests Ministry welcomed the recommendations and noted BC Timber Sales silviculture contractors must now provide 72 hours notice prior to any camp being established.

"Safety is a shared responsibility," the statement said. "A number of ministries and safety agencies all have important roles to play in ensuring that silviculture contractors and operators act in the best interests of their workers."

In January, the B.C. Employment Standards Branch ordered Khaira Enterprises to pay $228,000 to 57 workers for unpaid wages but the workers have still not been paid. The B.C. Employment Standards Branch is holding about $105,000 in trust while Khaira Enterprises and the workers make appeals.

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