B.C. to investigate complaints of abuse, filthy conditions at camp near Golden

Posted by admin on Aug 13th, 2010

By Kim Bolan, Vancouver Sun August 13, 2010 Comments

VANCOUVER — B.C. Labour Minister Murray Coell said Tuesday that conditions described by workers in a bush camp near Golden are “completely unacceptable.” And he said he will carefully review the results of two on-going investigations into Khaira Enterprises Ltd. which had a $280,000 B.C. government contract to clear brush in the area. The contract was suspended after 25 workers, many of them recent African immigrants, were found living in squalor late last month without proper accommodation, drinking water or bathing facilities. Now both WorkSafe B.C. and Employment Standards are investigating the workers’ claims of threats, racist comments, insufficient food, 15-hour work days and bounced pay cheques.

“I am very concerned about the alleged substandard conditions and mistreatment of employees at this forestry work camp. The conditions described are completely unacceptable for employees,” Coell said in a statement to The Vancouver Sun.

“I will be carefully reviewing the results of all investigations into this matter to determine if any additional action is required.”

He also said his ministry is trying “to ensure all workers are paid.”

But Coell did not directly respond to demands by the B.C. Federation of Labour and the New Democratic Party for an sweeping investigation into the conditions in similar bush camps across B.C.

“This is outrageous. It is clear that these people weren’t protected. It’s clear that enforcement failed. We had third world conditions in British Columbia,” federation president Jim Sinclair said. “We are asking for the minister of labour to immediately undertake an independent investigation of what happened.”

NDP critic Raj Chouhan said there could be other workers trapped in the wilderness in need of help.

“I would press for an independent inquiry into this whole situation,” Chouhan said.

There are anywhere from 100 to 200 similar government contracts running at any one time depending on the month, Forests Ministry official Cheekwan Ho said Tuesday. Khaira only held the contract that has now been revoked.

The federation brought 11 of the Khaira workers to a news conference Tuesday where they described feeling like prisoners in the camp without money or transportation to escape.

They thanked those who “rescued” them many from their bleak life in woods July 21 when some recreational fishermen reported to the Ministry of Forests that they had been illegally burning garbage in their camp.

The Vancouver Sun revealed the controversy over Khaira’s camp conditions Monday night and confirmed that the contract has been terminated and that Khaira has been banned from bidding on contracts for a year.

Quesnel native Christine Barker, 24, had worked in the woods for other companies for five years without incident.

The single mother said Tuesday she has never dealt with abuse like what she experienced at Khaira.

“I would like to thank those who rescued us from the camp. It was such a relief to get out of the camp,” Barker said. “We felt as though we were held as hostages. We felt like prisoners.”

She said after cheques bounced and no other wages were forthcoming, the workers withdrew their services no July 17.

“When we started the work refusal, that’s when the camp conditions got even worse – showers were denied. … We were refused food because we weren’t working for him at that time.”

She said she witnessed a supervisor threaten to kill one of her Congolese co-workers and throw a knife at him.

Several threats were reported to Golden RCMP after the workers got removed from the camp July 21.

Cpl. Dave Kronlund confirmed Tuesday that an investigation into the threats had been launched, though he said he couldn’t comment further.

Barker said since she left the camp, she has not been able to collect Employment Insurance because Khaira claimed on her documents that she quit.

“We were working long, strenuous hours,” she said.

She said she was most disturbed by racial slurs by a supervisor against her African co-workers, who refered to her as “cookie dough” and them as “burnt cookies.”

They worked 10 to 12 hours a day and travelled three to four hours each time further into the bush from the makeshift camp.

“We are all suffering right now….now we have no means of feeding our families,” Barker said.

De Dieu Kibasi, a New Westminster man originally from the Congo, said he wants justice for himself and the other workers.

“We were really, really tortured,” he said. “What we want from the government is justice.”

They were promised $25 an hour, but then told they would only get $16 an hour. On the cheques that were given, there is no reference to the number of hours worked.

Sinclair said 20 of them at a time were packed into a 15-person van without seatbelts to be driven to the remote areas that needed to be cleared each day.

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