Tree planters found in substandard conditions last year. They have yet to be paid wages owed.

Khaira owner dumped home to avoid paying workers, according to lawsuit

"We were not treated like human beings," African worker.

The owner of a Surrey company transfered his North Surrey home to his wife to avoid paying back wages to tree planters found living in squalid conditions last year, a B.C. Supreme Court document shows.

Tree planting crews on Texada Island and in Golden working for Surrey’s Khaira Enterprises Ltd. were found in deplorable conditions last year, sparking several investigations.

A group of 25 African-born tree planters were found on Texada on March 17, last year, cold and hungry, living in a boxcar on wheels without proper ventilation. They used a single outhouse, had no showers and were cleaning themselves with cups of water. They also complained they had not been paid.

A flurry of emails between members of B.C. Timber Sales, under the ministry of forests, who hired Khaira, was sent about a week earlier expressing concerns about safety and the low cost of Khaira’s bid for the work.

“The simple answer might be everyone is entitled to their opinion, everyone has the right to go broke,” one email states. “We have no ability not to award a contract to the lowest bidder that meets all the eligibility criteria. References checked out.”

After conditions at the camp were exposed, several investigations began.

In February this year, the Employment Standards Branch ordered Khaira Enterprises Ltd. to pay $236,800 in unpaid wages. Khaira appealed that decision and lost.

A March 11, 2011 Supreme Court Statement of Claim indicates that on Feb. 25,  Khaira owner Hardilpreet Singh Sidhu transferred his home to his wife’s name to avoid paying the workers.

“The transfer of the property constitutes fraudulent conveyance as its effect is to delay, hinder, or defraud Hardilpreet’s creditors and others, including the plaintiffs, of their just and lawful remedies contrary to the Fraudulent Conveyance Act,” the Statement of Claim says.

None of the allegations within the province’s statement of claim have been proven in court.

A statement of defense indicates the transfer was an unfortunate coincidence and the result of a marital separation.

The workers haven’t yet been paid, and now one of them is left begging on the streets to feed himself.

Tree planter Moka Balikama spoke to Black Press on July 20 with the assistance of a Swahili translator.

Balikama worked in camps near Revelstoke and Golden for two months before the camp near Golden was discovered in July 2010.

As with the camp on Texada Island, it was again an alert by members of the public that brought the situation to light. After a report from the public about illegal burning, the conservation service attended the camp and shut it down. Golden residents rallied to aid the stricken workers, housing them at a church and helping feed them.

Balikama, 37, is a native of Congo and recounted the abuse and mistreatment he endured.

“We were not living in good conditions,” Balikama said. “We were not treated like human beings.”

He said the workers faced racial slurs and other verbal abuse.

Balikama moved to B.C. from Winnipeg for the job, and now resides in Vancouver. He wasn’t able to make payments on his apartment in Winnipeg, and has spent periods begging on the streets for money in Vancouver.

Documents show that forests ministry staff knew of the poor conditions at the camps months before the situation was exposed in the media.

British Columbia Public Interest Advocacy Centre lawyer Ros Salvador, who represents some of the workers, said in a release the government knew of the “deplorable conditions” at the ministry-run camps and refused to do anything about them.

“All the government cared about was getting the trees planted and paying as little as possible,” Salvador said. “Under the low-bid policy, government saves money through the exploitation of workers. We think the Ministry of Forests should pay the full amount of the workers’ wages, otherwise, government profits from the abuse caused by refusing to consider workers’ rights.”

A forests ministry spokesperson issued a brief statement saying “immediate steps” were taken to address health and safety issues of workers in the camp on Texada Island. He also said that no new contracts were issued to Khaira Enterprises in 2010, and that the contracts held by Khaira had been issued earlier in 2008 and 2009.

B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair is calling for provincial and federal bodies to act to make sure the former employees receive their past wages.

“These workers have waited far too long for the back wages and Employment Insurance to which they are entitled. The appropriate provincial and federal agencies need to ensure that former Khaira workers receive this money immediately,” Sinclair said.

-with files from Aaron Orlando