By John Colebourn, The Province October 7, 2013
Food given to a group of African tree planters at bush camps in British Columbia was much different than the menu for the rest of the workers, a B.C. Human Rights tribunal was told.
The allegations of sub-standard food and deplorable living conditions were outlined on Monday at the tribunal looking into the conduct of Surrey-based Khaira Enterprises Ltd.
African worker Amani Bahati in a tele-conference appearance as a key witness called the meals disgusting because “they didn’t know how to cook the food.
“The food was nasty,” he told the tribunal of the meals given to the African workers. He said there were about 40 workers who all spoke Swahili and they would be given bread and peanut butter for breakfast and lunch and chicken and rice for dinner every day as food.
“Our food was nasty while they were eating nice food,” said Bahati.
The work camps were at Revelstoke, Golden and near Kamloops. ”We had a cooker for the Africans and the East Indian people had their own cooker,” he said. “Two different types of food was cooked.”
The worst food came at the camp set up in Golden in July 2010, said Bahati.
The tree planting operation was eventually shut down by B.C.’s Ministry of Foresty in July 2010 after ministry staff found many of the tree planters had not been fed in a number of days.
“In Golden the food was really bad,” said Bahati. He outlined how the refrigerator had broken down and the food went bad, but the owners of the company still cooked it up and served it to the Africans. “The food was so bad you couldn’t eat it,” said Bahati. “All the food had so much spice.”
“They only gave us rice and chicken,” he said of the meals they were given after a long day of tree planting. “They never gave the workers a choice of what they could eat. And there was never enough food.”
Even the work conditions were different for the group of Africans while out tree planting, recalled Bahati. “The East Indians and white guys were taking breaks whenever they wanted and we would ask for a break and they would say no.”
Lawyer Eugene Kung asked Bahati about the number of days he would work for the tree planting company. Bahati said, “we worked seven days a week.”
Bahati alleged the racist comments made by the owners of Khaira Enterprises were very hurtful to the group. “It was really bad,” he said of the comments. “Mr. Sidhu was calling the African workers ‘niggers’ and making them work like slaves,” said Bahati.
“We were trying to tell him to stop calling us niggers, but if you say something they will fire you,” he said.
Withholding wages was one way Bahati said the owners of the company kept the workers in line. ”You had to respect them because you are scared you aren’t going to get paid,” he said.
Treeplanters at a work camp near Golden on the day the camp was shut down. When officials from the provincial Forests Ministry arrived at the site in Summer 2010, the tree planters told them they had not eaten in two days, were living in squalor and were not getting paid by Surrey-based Khaira Enterprises. In a report released July 27, 2011, B.C. Forest Safety Ombudsman Roger Harris criticised the government over its lack of monitoring of conditions at the camp. 58 workers. primarily new immigrants from Africa who speak litle english, have still not been paid $236,800 in back wages despite an order to that effect from the Employment Standards Branch. (Photos submitted by B.C. Federation of Labour)————–Photograph by: Submitted , B.C. Federation of Labour
Bahati said he tried to explain to one manager he did not want to cause trouble. “I reported to him I came here to work not to fight,” said Bahati.
The tribunal was also told about the sexual harassment one woman worker faced from the owners. And the male African workers alleged they were also subjected to racial and sexual put-downs.
One woman in the camp was so horrified by her treatment she was continually crying, the tribunal was told. “She was crying, they tried to harass her, they were putting her down,” the tribunal heard of the allegations.
In his testimony, Bahati said all the workers wanted was the money they felt was owed to them. When asked why he did not quit due to the deplorable conditions, Bahati said: ”That’s a good question.
“I kept working for them because they never gave me my money.”
By quitting, Bahati said he felt he would have no chance of getting the money he earned from the summer of tree planting. By his account, Bahati said he is still owed about $5,800.
Bahati said he is still scared from the nightmare in the bush. “It affected me pretty badly,” he said. “I wondered how people could treat other people like that. The country I came over to work in is lovely, and I never thought some people could treat us like slaves here in Canada.”
Following the camp shutdown several investigations were done on Khaira, which does reforestation and other silviculture work.
The province’s Employment Standards Branch ordered the company to repay $260,000 in wages in 2011, but lawyers for the complainants say that not all of the wages have been paid.
The tribunal is scheduled for five weeks.
Moka Balikama, who filed the human rights complaint on behalf of all the black workers, told the tribunal last week 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 where he witnessed the alleged abuse.
Lawyer Sarah Khan last week told the tribunal that the workplace, operated by Khaira, was divided along racial lines. Black workers were forced to work on harder terrain than the non-black employees.
The owners of Khaira, Khalid Bajwa and Hardilpreet Sidhu are representing themselves at the tribunal and have denied the allegations.
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By John Colebourn, The Province October 7, 2013