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Provincially-contracted company accused of depriving workers of food and water

Deprived of food, water and toilets, 30 workers, most recent immigrants, have been rescued from a remote forestry camp in Golden, B.C. The "nightmare" has the BC Federation of Labour calling on the government to step up monitoring and enforcement of safety standards.

Handout photo/Handout photo

When Edour Nabulizi immigrated to Canada from Zimbabwe in 2005, he expected a paradise - but a summer at a B.C. forestry camp revealed a disturbing reality.

"What do you know, there's no paradise on this Earth," said the 16-year-old from Winnipeg, who was enticed to British Columbia by the promise of long hours and high wages.

Deprived of food, water and toilets, Mr. Nabulizi was one of 30 employees who say they were rescued from a remote forestry camp near Golden, B.C. last month. They say they endured 15-hour work days, death threats and food shortages and were forced to sleep in unventilated shipping containers.

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To top it off, the employees say they have still not been fully paid for the brush-clearing work they performed.

The "nightmare" has the B.C. Federation of Labour calling on the province to investigate. "Under government money, funded by the public, these people were allowed to be treated like third-class citizens in a Third World country," said labour federation president Jim Sinclair. "The only way to stop that is to investigate why no one enforced any of the rules."

The labour watchdog also wants the company banned from working in B.C., back pay for employees and accurate employment records issued.

The forestry camp was run by Khaira Enterprises Ltd., a tree-planting company that held a $280,000 contract with the government's BC Timber Sales.

"The conditions described are completely unacceptable for employees," Minister of Labour Murray Coell said in a statement.

The ministry helped the employees leave the site, put them up in a hotel and provided them with bus tickets home on July 21. Now, WorkSafeBC and the Employment Standards Branch are investigating and will work to ensure all workers are paid, Mr. Coell said.

The Forests Ministry pulled the company's contract on July 23 after a camp inspection revealed the conditions.

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Safety in forestry camps - including safe food, water and sanitary conditions - is the responsibility of the contract holder, who must get a permit from the local health authority, according to Forests Ministry spokesman Robert Pauliszyn.

The ministry inspects the camps once they are open, and inspected the Khaira site on July 21. Khaira Enterprises did not have a health permit, according to Mr. Pauliszyn.

The company is also banned from bidding on timber contracts in the region for a year.

Khalid Bajwa, manager of the company, denied the employees' allegations about work conditions, saying construction was not complete on the camp. Mr. Bajwa also said he has the bank records to prove he issued cheques, although he refused to provide them to The Globe and Mail.

"They know they don't have enough hours and they can't get EI, so they are complaining," he said.

But Christine Barker, a single mother from Quesnel, says she has not been paid what she is owed. "We have no way of feeding our families," she said.

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Ms. Barker and her fellow employees demanded their pay on July 17, but she says the employer refused to drive them into Golden to cash pay cheques. The employees responded with a work stoppage. "We felt as though we were held as hostages," Ms. Barker said.

They finally got out when they started to burn garbage illegally, which was noticed by recreational fishermen and reported to the Forests Ministry.

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