A group of tree planters originally from Africa found living in deplorable conditions in a Golden, B.C., camp endured slave-like conditions because their employers discriminated against black people, a B.C. Human Rights Tribunal has been told.
Lawyer Sarah Khan told the tribunal on Monday that the workplace, operated by Khaira Enterprises Ltd., was divided along racial lines. Black workers were forced to work on harder terrain than non-black employees, and the latter were given differential treatment, she said.
Ms. Khan is representing 50 tree planters, many of whom were immigrants or refugees, and who she said were subjected to "extreme racial harassment," including racial slurs, verbal abuse, and mockery that were "consistent with slavery and anti-black racial segregation."
Ms. Khan also alleged that the workers lived in squalid conditions. They were given undercooked or expired food to eat, and were forced to drink untreated water from nearby streams and rivers. At night, they slept on dirty mattresses in a cramped storage container with no ventilation and inadequate showers, she said.
They were also expected to work with few breaks in between, and were given little or no pay, Ms. Khan said.
"It made the workers realize their experiences as refugees are not over," she told Norman Trerise, who is presiding over the tribunal hearing. "They also felt unwelcomed in Canada, and they were not valued for their work or as human beings."
The camp in Golden, in southeast B.C., was shut down by B.C.'s Ministry of Forests in July, 2010, when ministry staff discovered the tree planters, and were told that they had not had anything to eat for two days, the tribunal heard.
After the camp was disbanded, many of the workers suffered financial difficulties because of the lack of wages, Ms. Khan said.
"Some became homeless for a period of time, many did not have enough money to purchase food and basic necessities of life," she said. "Some weren't able to support their wives and children."
Several investigations of Khaira, which does reforestation as well as other silviculture work, were launched by various agencies.
The province's Employment Standards Branch ordered the company to repay $260,000 in wages in 2011, but Ms. Khan said that not all of the wages have been paid.
The tribunal, scheduled for five weeks, is expected to hear testimony from several of the tree planters.
Moka Balikama, who filed the human-rights complaint on behalf of all the black workers, told the tribunal on Monday that he came from the Congo to Canada as a refugee in 2008, and worked for Khaira in Revelstoke and Golden from June to July in 2010.
He had become a permanent resident by then, and he decided to move from Winnipeg to B.C. because he had heard that tree planting was a fast way to make more money – something he needed to help his sick father in Africa, he said.
The 38-year-old, who now lives in Calgary, said through a Swahili translator that he worked 10 to 12 hours, seven days a week that summer. He also lived with other tree planters in what he believed was a "cargo container" attached to his boss's truck.
He also said he was never paid on time, and that the cost of food and accommodations were deducted from his paycheques even though that issue was never discussed with him before.
According to documents that Ms. Khan submitted as evidence, the Employment Standards Branch found that the deductions were not authorized, and Khaira owed Mr. Balikama several thousand dollars more than what the company paid him.
Khalid Bajwa and Hardilpreet Sidhu, the firm's owners, have denied the allegations of mistreatment and discrimination.
Mr. Bajwa told the tribunal that Khaira has hired seasonal tree planters for years, and many of the workers found in the camp had worked for him in previous seasons.
The company has never had complaints from workers, and its camps have always passed inspections from WorkSafeBC, he said.
In 2010, as in previous years, his tree planters were hired to work in various areas of B.C., including Texada Island, Powell River, Kamloops, Revelstoke and Golden, said Mr. Bajwa. He said the majority of workers were of African origin, but there were also South Asian and white workers, and everyone was treated well.
"We are very friendly, they work very good with me, we never had any problems," he said. "Whenever I need more workers, I ask them, 'So can you bring some more guys?' and they bring more guys to work in the company."
Mr. Bajwa said he has promoted several black workers to managerial positions before, and he questions how he could be perceived as a boss who degrades and racially discriminates against his workers if many happily come back to work for him every year.
Mr. Sidhu, who also spoke at Monday's hearing, said he has been very hurt by the allegations because he treated the workers like his friends.
Both owners are representing themselves at the tribunal. While Mr. Sidhu will not be calling witnesses, he said he wants only to see how some of the workers scheduled to testify can "look me in the eye and tell me I hate them just for being black, because I don't."
Allegations of sexual harassment against one female worker were also presented on Monday.