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African Tree Planters Win Racial Discrimination Case

After four years of legal battle, 55 refugee and immigrant workers awarded $700,000.

By David P. Ball 23 May 2014 | TheTyee.ca

David P. Ball is staff reporter with The Tyee based in Vancouver. Find him on Twitter or email him here.

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Workers at Khaira's camp near Golden after ministry officials moved in July 2010. Photo: B.C. Federation of Labour.

For 55 refugee and immigrant tree planters who endured racist slurs and were forced to share mattresses in a "container," it's a major legal victory nearly four years in the making.

In July 2010, Surrey-based Khaira Enterprises faced allegations of "slave-like" conditions in its tree planting camp near Golden, British Columbia. Some workers at the camp told government inspectors they had not been fed for two days at a time.

Today, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ordered the company to pay each worker $10,000, plus $1,000 for each month worked, totalling an estimated $700,000. The payment is explicitly for discrimination faced by the workers.

Sources say Khaira has so far coughed up about half of the quarter-million it was separately ordered to repay the workers in unpaid wages by the provincial Employment Standards Branch in 2011.

Tribunal member Norman Trerise wrote that the fact that the complainants were refugees, along with "the overwhelming evidence of the vulnerability of the African workers," led to them not being paid regularly, as compared to South Asian and Caucasian workers in the camp.

Trerise agreed the complainants, all but one of them African, faced discrimination on the basis of race, colour, ancestry, place of origin and, in one woman's instance, sex. He also declared that the sleeping container which housed workers two or three per mattress "clearly was not equipped specifically for human habitation," but noted that since the site's non-African workers lived in uncomfortable conditions, too, they weren't discriminatory.

The workers were represented by the non-profit B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC), which launched the complaint on Dec. 6, 2010 alleging the company had violated the Human Rights Code by "discriminating on the basis of race, colour, ancestry and place of origin."

"There was a finding of discrimination, which we hoped and expected," said BCPIAC lawyer Eugene Kung. "Overall, it's a pretty good decision. The findings around some of the camp conditions didn't go as far as we would have liked. The condemnation of this type of behaviour is important as a society."

Wage repayments still outstanding

In July 2010, the camp was ordered to close by government officials after an investigation revealed some workers hadn't been fed in two days, lacked clean water, and were forced to live in substandard conditions.

The tribunal complaint heard dozens of witnesses testify that the workers were forced to endure racist slurs, verbal abuse and harassment. Many also said they were not paid on a regular basis, and the province's Employment Standards Branch ordered the company to reimburse more than $240,000 of wages owed to the tree planters, most of them African refugees who had permanent residence status. None were part of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.

Khaira Enterprises works in reforestation with contracts from the Ministry of Forests.

"At the end of day, they were the ones benefiting from the trees being planted at such a low price," said Kung. "We've been asking from the start for the province to at least pay for the wages outstanding.

"Although this decision validates the experiences of the workers, they've still experienced almost all the negative consequences of this, from being in debt to not being able to support their families to health and mental health issues."

Documents obtained by the Globe and Mail last December revealed that the province was aware of concerns over the company's working conditions in its tree planting camps, and WorkSafeBC had been alerted to problems as early as 1996. An investigation in 2008 led to a two-year bidding ban, but afterwards the Ministry of Forests resumed contracting with Khaira Enterprises.

Another March 2010 email from a forester to the ministry warned about a Khaira contract on Texada Island: "The planting contract started today on Texada and issues are coming to light. The police were called as locals were concerned about the planting crews."

The reforestation company's owner named in the case, Khalid Bajwa, could not be reached for comment through his business phone number.

On Monday, Bajwa returns to Surrey Provincial Court, where he faces charges of fraud over $5,000 and using a forged document in relation to a work camp in Golden, B.C. He also faces two additional charges for the same offences alleged to have been committed elsewhere.  [Tyee]

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