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Deprived of food, water and toilets, 30 workers, most of them recent immigrants, have been found at a remote tree-planting camp near Golden, B.C. (Courtesy B.C. Federation of Labour)
Deprived of food, water and toilets, 30 workers, most of them recent immigrants, have been found at a remote tree-planting camp near Golden, B.C. (Courtesy B.C. Federation of Labour)

Tree-planting boss denies discrimination at human-rights tribunal Add to ...

A supervisor at a B.C. tree-planting camp says African workers were not victims of discrimination – although the Punjabi-speaking supervisor admits he doesn’t know the meaning of some of the slurs allegedly used.

Testimony continued Thursday in the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal case involving the Golden, B.C., camp. Fifty tree planters originally from Africa allege they were forced to endure squalid conditions by their employer, Khaira Enterprises Ltd., because they were black.

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The case has heard the black workers were forced to do their jobs on harder terrain than non-black workers. Their lawyer has also alleged the workers received little or no pay, undercooked or expired food, untreated water and improper accommodation.

Nachhatar Singh Samra, 68, testified Thursday through an interpreter. The camp supervisor dismissed the allegations against company owners Khalid Bajwa and Hardilpreet Sidhu as untrue.

Sarah Khan, the lawyer representing the workers, took a perhaps surprising approach during her cross-examination and read aloud some of the slurs that were allegedly used. She asked Mr. Samra if he knew the meaning of one of the slurs, often used against black people. Through the interpreter, he said no. She then asked if he knew the meaning of another taunt, used against someone perceived to be weak. Again, he said no.

Ms. Khan then asked Mr. Samra if he ever heard Mr. Sidhu tell the African workers nobody liked them. He answered that as far as he was aware, everyone got along, aside from the occasional argument.

Mr. Samra said he started working for Khaira in 1998 or 1999. As a supervisor, his job in Golden was primarily to oversee planting and brushing work. He said he always felt there was enough food at the camp for everyone, and enough bottled water.

The Ministry of Forests shut down the camp in July, 2010. The tribunal has heard ministry staff closed the camp after learning the 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 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 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, earlier testified the tree-planters were vulnerable to mistreatment. He said they had no contact with the outside world and couldn’t go anywhere without the employer taking them.

Mr. Sinclair testified 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.

The case, which started late last month, is expected to continue into November.

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