Wednesday, August 11, 2010

B.C. bush camp conditions 'slavery' - By MICHAEL PLATT, QMI Agency

CALGARY - It's been condemned as a filthy forest sweatshop, where workers slept in squalid shipping containers, denied food if they complained.

Joan Stevaux never saw the actual camp, but she saw the hunger and desperation of 24 famished men and a woman, seeking aid after being brought in from the wilderness.

"They weren't doing well mentally, they were uptight and upset, and they were very hungry -- they hadn't eaten in days," said Stevaux, a volunteer with the Trinity Lutheran church. "They'd apparently been sleeping in transport containers. The fellow from the Forestry office said he'd never seen a camp as poorly run -- it was the worst condition he'd ever seen.

"He said it looked like the conditions you'd see in a third-world sweat shop. It was pretty much like slavery."

It sounds like a sordid tale from some poverty-plagued nation where labour is cheap and easily abused.

But these forestry workers, mainly immigrants from Congo, were toiling in the trees just three hours from Calgary, near Golden, B.C.

Busted after RCMP responded in late July to reports of an illegal fire at a bush camp, conditions at the condemned camp are now the subject of an investigation by the B.C. government.

Tuesday, at a Vancouver press conference organized by the B.C. Federation of Labour, some of those who lived at the camp spoke out about the lack of water and toilets, and being forced to ride in unsafe vehicles.

"Basically we'd be going to work without water -- they told us to get water from the creek," Christine Barker, a single mom from Quesnel, said.

"The food we were supplied was bread, peanut butter, rotten apples, and chicken and rice every day. Some of us did not accept to eat that food because it was not refrigerated properly."

The Federation of Labour is calling on the B.C. government to shut down the company involved.

"It's medieval -- totally medieval," said Evan Stewart, spokesman for the federation.

Officials from the Forestry Ministry and WorkSafeBC are looking into the treatment of the workers, who were apparently stranded at the camp.

The employer, Khaira Enterprises Ltd., has had a government contract worth nearly $300,000 terminated, and been banned from bidding on any further work in the region for one year.

Golden's Trinity Lutheran church became involved when refugees from the camp arrived in town.

"They came here because social service is right next door -- someone came over and asked if we could help, because they were about to have 25 hungry people on their hands," said Stevaux.

"Well, that's why we're here -- that's what a church is for."

If Stevaux has a charitable heart for the forestry crew, she's less forgiving towards the company that apparently treated workers like trash.

"They (the workers) were very grateful," she said.

"They'd only been getting one peanut-butter-and-jam sandwich for lunch, and a bit of chicken and rice for dinner."

That's when they were being fed. The work crew told Stevaux it had been two days since most of them ate, after they halted their seven-day-a-week, 12-hour work schedule to protest not being paid.

"They were only given food if they worked, so for two days, there'd been no food," said Stevaux.

"Most of them speak only French, so they couldn't complain, and most had no idea where they were."

They were only too happy to accept an offer of bus tickets back to their families, in cities like Vancouver and Winnipeg.

Before they left, Stevaux said one of the men told her he was grateful that they'd been mistreated in Canada, rather than in the Congo.

"He said, 'I'm glad this happened in Canada, because here, someone will be punished for this.' "

And punishment is exactly what Khaira owner Khalid Bajwa says he is already enduring -- unfair punishment, that is.

He said the crew in question had been working for him since March without a peep of complaint, and the men were well-paid and decently cared for.

"These guys were all working a long time with me, and they were happy," said Bajwa.

"They get paid -- I've always paid them."

A veteran of the industry since the 1990s, Bajwa says he's never had issues with the government in the past, and the only reason this camp looked bad was because it had just been set up.

"They've always been happy with my work before," said Bajwa.


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I have been a resident of Coldstream since 1976. I have had 15 years of experience on Council, 3 years as Mayor. As a current Councillor I am working to achieve fair water and sewer rates and to ensure that taxpayers get fair treatment. The current direction regarding water supply is unsustainable and I am doing all I can to get the most cost effective water supply possible.