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Moka Balikama and several dozen other former tree planters say that they were forced to live in substandard conditions. (JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Moka Balikama and several dozen other former tree planters say that they were forced to live in substandard conditions. (JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Tree planters allege racial discrimination at human rights tribunal Add to ...

More than 50 black tree-planters who were subjected to slave-like conditions at a B.C. camp are still “deeply affected” by what they were forced to endure, their lawyer said on the first day of closing submissions in their human-rights case.

The workers have alleged they were discriminated against by their employer, Khaira Enterprises Ltd., because they were black. The workers were at a camp near the southeastern B.C. community of Golden until it was shut down in July, 2010.

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The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal case began in September and has heard that the black workers received little pay, undercooked or expired food, untreated water and inadequate accommodation.

Lawyer Sarah Khan told the tribunal Thursday that the workers were adversely treated because of their race. She said the workers were often dealt with in a hostile manner and were subjected to racial slurs.

Ms. Khan added that the working conditions were different for black workers than non-black workers. She said the crews and vehicles used were segregated, and the black workers were pushed much harder than non-black workers. They were also forced to work on harder terrain.

Ms. Khan said the testimony heard at the tribunal has shown that what happened at the camp continues to affect the workers today.

She spent most of Thursday’s hearing reviewing the evidence the tribunal had heard, and past cases involving discrimination.

The company’s owners, Khalid Bajwa and Hardilpreet Sidhu, have denied the workers were mistreated because they were black.

Mr. Bajwa earlier testified the workers only pursued the human-rights case for the money. He said conditions at the camp were difficult, but that’s to be expected in tree-planting.

Mr. Sidhu, in addition to racial discrimination, was accused of sexual discrimination by a female employee. He also denied that occurred. He said the incidents cited as discrimination stemmed from misunderstandings.

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

Jim Sinclair, president of the BC Federation of Labour, testified the tree planters were vulnerable to mistreatment because they had no contact with the outside world and couldn’t go anywhere without their employer.

The tribunal has heard Ministry of Forests staff shut down the camp after learning some workers hadn’t eaten for two days. The province’s Employment Standards Branch ordered the company to repay $260,000 in wages in 2011. Ms. Khan has said some of that money has not been paid.

The Globe and Mail reported this week that the ministry repeatedly hired Khaira to do forestry work despite concerns about substandard camps, because Khaira underbid its competitors.

Documents released through freedom of information show that even before the Golden camp was shut down, government officials had a sense of how Khaira managed to keep its costs down.

“It is my opinion and experience, Khaira is not capable of successfully managing and completing large planting contracts,” a government official wrote after the company was cited for shoddy work in 2008. “We gave them lots of chances to improve (too many in hindsight).”

The company was suspended from bidding on planting contracts for two years, before winning a contract from the government’s B.C. Timber Sales office in 2010.

Ms. Khan has said the evidence presented at the tribunal was that the ministry’s low-bid policy “created the conditions for the discrimination to occur.”

Forests Minister Steve Thomson has said he regrets the provincial government’s failure to protect the workers. However, he said he’s confident the situation won’t be repeated because work camps are now inspected. He said other changes have also been made to better protect workers.

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