It was the early spring of 1985 when John Gilchrist ventured to Horsefly, British Columbia for his first-ever tree planting contract. After being dropped off by the contractor, who promised to return with more supplies in a week, Gilchrist and a group of strangers fashioned a camp and built shelter using just rolls of plastic, rope and logs.
It soon dawned on everyone that although they now had shelter, they had no water. No problem. The group would improvise, using what Gilchrist describes as a puddle for their water supply.
By day 10, with food running precariously low, five hungry, tired and broke tree planters made the trek out of the woods and into a nearby town. There they discovered where the company owner lived and “fought with him for a day” until they could wrangle enough cash to at least pay for the gas home.
Past and present
Despite the rocky start, he planted for six years. It was not until later that Gilchrist, now a forest technician with Evergreen Forest Services in Slocan Park, British Columbia, discovered the treatment he received was pretty much the norm in silviculture at the time.
“Non-compliance and truancy and flying by the seat of our pants” was how the industry got started, suggests John Betts, executive director of the Western Silvicultural Contractors’ Association (WSCA) in Nelson, British Columbia.
Silviculture’s safety culture has certainly changed since the 1980s, but challenges related to attitudes and working conditions remain. Consider the experience of a group of tree planters more than two decades after Gilchrist and his workmates were left in the woods to fend for themselves.
Last July 22, a silviculture camp operated by Surrey, British Columbia-based Khaira Enterprises Ltd. was shut down. The closure followed investigations into complaints by a group of workers who had gone public about what they regarded as unacceptable and unhealthy conditions on the job, including inadequate food, water, shelter and bathroom facilities; physical violence; racial and sexual harassment; and unpaid wages.
“We were treated like slaves,” charges Moka Balikama, one of the former planters. Another past worker, Kaliste Kahamba, contends that planters were forced to sleep on filthy mattresses in unventilated, insect-infested shipping containers, often with their wet clothing and work tools nearby. “There was garbage everywhere. They burned garbage in the camps [where] we were staying,” Kahamba says.
Yet another worker, Dieudonné Kwizera, says the workday, including travel time, often stretched to 12 to 15 hours. Despite the long days, there was little breakfast available and no lunch, Kwizera reports. A river near the camp was sometimes used for both bathing and drinking water, he adds.
Ros Salvador, a lawyer with the British Columbia Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) in Vancouver, represents 25 of the former employees of Khaira Enterprises. Salvador says that workers also claimed they were forced to work when sick or injured, under threat of being fired, and were transported in overcrowded vans.
On January 10, she notes that 21 former employees filed a complaint with the BC Human Rights Tribunal in Vancouver against Khaira Enterprises and its two directors. The 30-page complaint details numerous allegations of discrimination by the workers (most of whom are originally from Africa, but have since become permanent residents of Canada), including racial slurs and mockery, verbal abuse, racial and sexual harassment and racialized violence.
Work camp conditions came to light after some fishermen spotted an illegal fire started by burning garbage. They contacted authorities, which ultimately spurred investigations by a number of provincial agencies, including the Employment Standards Branch (ESB) of the Ministry of Labour, the Ministry of Forests, Mines and Lands, the Ministry of Environment and WorkSafeBC.
Inspection reports by WorkSafeBC show that between July and October of 2010, Khaira Enterprises was issued more than 20 compliance orders revolving around, among others, the following issues:
- transport of as many as 20 workers in a 15-passenger van;
- hazardous conditions related to inadequate clothing, cold stress and lack of continuous dry-room facilities;
- failure to provide a WorkSafeBC officer with complete copies of worker orientations, tailgate meetings and training records;
- operator training for use of all-terrain vehicles and availability of proper headgear; and,
- lack of potable water and first aid equipment.
“The living conditions were absolutely horrible,” Salvador contends. Beyond the conditions was the fact that workers were forced to pay $25 a day for food and lodgings, deductions that the ESB later determined were illegal, she says.
Details of camp conditions and employment standards violations left a black mark on the tree-planting sector. Betts could not comment specifically on Khaira Enterprises, but says “we’ve taken a shellacking and the public has received a very bad impression of the industry.” The public perception will likely take much to undo, he predicts.
Reported details of conditions, while very upsetting, were not entirely unexpected. Although numbering but a few, “there have been contractors behaving along the same lines for years,” Betts says.
“They underperform, they abuse workers, they break the law and they seem to stay in business, and that’s what’s so aggravating to the industry. They’re putting workers in jeopardy every year they’re out there and endangering them in terms of safety and their well-being, to say nothing of the effect they have on the marketplace and the impression that the rest of the nation gets of us,” says Betts.
Jonathan Clark is a planting supervisor for Folklore Contracting Ltd. in Prince George, British Columbia, who has more than 20 years in the industry. Clark acknowledges that some silviculture companies skirt the rules, but argues that bad apples are few and far between. “Very few companies out there are that shady,” he says.
Betts suggests that the industry is more responsible and accountable as a whole than it was in the early days. “For a long time, seat belt use was completely ignored and even people who wanted to put on seat belts were kind of made fun of,” Clark points out. Now, the opposite is generally true.
The Khaira Enterprises case – and the profile it generated – was enough to launch a review of the silviculture camp system by Roger Harris, British Columbia’s forest safety ombudsman. Announced in February, the review was scheduled to take four months to complete, during which time Harris will seek input across the province.
Harris reported in March that he had already received some submissions, expected to complete interviews by mid-April and anticipated that his report would be written by June.
While the Khaira Enterprises debacle may have served as the driver for the review, Harris says his investigation will cover more than the experience of a single company. He plans to explore coordination among a number of ministries, agencies, organizations and associations that have a role in implementing related regulations and policies, or in the case of the BC Forest Safety Council, a requirement for companies to achieve SAFE certification. (The Safety Accord Forestry Enterprise [SAFE] certification helps businesses to improve their occupational health and safety performance and to evaluate their safety programs using industry-recognized audit protocols. There are three different audit tools to suit all types and sizes of companies.)
Harris says his office has received calls from silviculture contractors and workers in the past, with the majority of complaints relating to unpaid wages or substandard conditions. The approach to date has been to have callers work with an assoc
iation or ministry to identify a solution, although that seems not to have been entirely successful.
“Rather than trying to deal with this on an individual [basis],” Harris says, “this really is a serious enough problem that it needs a much more broader review of how all the organizations interact.”
Once any “institutional barriers” are identified, recommendations can be developed to help improve coordination among all parties so that any similar situations can be averted.
Because issues that have been of concern in the past persist today, failing to make changes will only mean the same thing will “happen tomorrow,” Harris says. “At some point in time, the outcome of that will be something pretty disastrous for someone,” he cautions.
Still, the ombudsman says that gains have been made over the last decade to enhance professionalism in the silviculture sector. “All of us collectively across the industry have a responsibility for each other and I think, in the case of the silviculture industry, they took the bull by the horns and have really done the work of professionalizing their industry and cleaning it up,” Harris says.
Looking forward, Betts says he would like Harris’s review to provide “some constructive recommendations” and apportion responsibility. “You’ll find that it’s not just the contractor here who’s probably culpable of some behaviour that needs to be corrected. I think the ministries and agencies have something to correct as well,” he adds.
Even before the ombudsman’s review was launched, industry players had raised concerns regarding the bidding process for government contracts. Betts says that sometimes a contract is simply awarded to a known, competent contractor; sometimes it goes to a low-bid auction.
There is a certain group of companies that are “able to bid low because they are not obeying the law,” Betts points out. “They put workers in jeopardy and they undermine the market for our services,” he says.
As such, he suggests it becomes all the more important to carefully consider a company’s experience, minimum standards for camps, safety equipment and SAFE certification.
“It makes it incumbent on the [Ministry of Forests, Mines and Lands] to actually take more care in the execution and procurement of these contracts,” Betts argues. But this type of review is something that government has “been doing less, and as a result, we end up with contractors committing crimes in the business.”
There is a need to carry out proper screening to ensure government contracts are being properly administered, says Betts. But there is also a need to exercise both rigour and discipline in the execution of the contract. “You cannot sit there with a low bid and allow them to take shortcuts and, in a sense, not live up to the contractual obligation,” he says.
There must be some provisions for monitoring on a regular basis, says New Democrat MLA Raj Chouhan. That will help to ensure “the working conditions are safe, workers are taken care of – their food, their sleeping, their transportation,” Chouhan suggests.
What happens if a company has been disqualified by BC Timber Sales (BCTS), which provides cost and price benchmarks for timber harvested from public lands in British Columbia? Clark asks. What protections are in place to ensure the company does not simply set up shop elsewhere? “Does a ban from BCTS apply to the entire province or does it just apply to the region where it happened?” he adds.
(In the Khaira Enterprises case, it applied to “all government contracts for two years,” notes information from the Ministry of Forests, Mines and Lands.)
The current policy of “accepting the lowest bid regardless of any real quality control encourages low-balling, poor quality and exploitation of workers,” says Jim Sinclair, president of the BC Federation of Labour in Vancouver.
Sinclair argues that the entire bidding system is in need of a revamp. Not only is it difficult to find out the identities of the successful bidders, he says, it is also entirely possible the bidder will “then subcontract that work.”
Working conditions were but one aspect examined as part of the various reviews into the Khaira Enterprises case. Following an ESB investigation, for example, the company was ordered on January 17 to pay almost $229,000 plus a $3,500 administrative penalty for unpaid wages, overtime, statutory and vacation time, compensation for length of service, unauthorized deductions and accrued interest.
On February 4, the order was amended to raise the amount owed to slightly more than $240,000, says ESB spokesperson Gordon Williams. “The employment standards investigation is primarily around those matters which are governed by the Employment Standards Act itself; it doesn’t deal with the camp conditions,” Williams says. “It has to do with the hours of work for which employees should have been paid.”
The ruling affects 58 former workers employed between January and July of 2010 at Khaira Enterprises work sites in the British Columbia communities of Golden, Revelstoke, Texada Island, Powell River, Salmon Arm and Kamloops.
The decision relates to more than double the 25 employees involved in the original complaint, Williams says. “During the investigation, it became apparent there were other issues with the company and so the investigation was expanded to cover a number of their operations in British Columbia.”
For Sinclair, the “paltry” fine against Khaira Enterprises is inadequate. “A fine of a few thousand dollars sends the wrong signal. This is not going to discourage the rogue operators in this industry from trying to do the same thing to their workers,” he charges.
In the determination, Karpal Singh, delegate of the director of employment standards, points to hours worked in Revelstoke and Golden. “The fact that so many employees raised similar concerns regarding the accuracy of the information contained in the timesheets raises doubts as to the credibility of Khaira’s records.”
On February 17, one month after the original determination, BCPIAC’s Ros Salvador said workers had yet to be paid. “The Ministry of Labour has the authority to release the money held by the provincial government, and the only just course of action is for the money to be paid out immediately to alleviate the poverty of the workers,” she argued.
An emailed response from the ESB notes that all parties involved have legal rights regarding payment of funds currently held in trust by the branch, including the right to appeal the decision up to the March 14, 2011 deadline. “Because any number of outcomes may occur related to an appeal, it would be improper for the director [of employment standards] to prejudge the outcome by paying out funds prematurely or otherwise taking any action that could prejudge the interests of parties,” the e-mail adds.
Betts and Gilchrist are not optimistic the workers will receive the money owed them. “They’re not out of the woods on this at all. These people are going to be waiting a lot longer for their money, if they see it at all,” Betts suggests.
Harris sees a definite link between living conditions and occupational safety. Of workers who are not getting proper nutrition or rest, “it’s probably by the grace of God we haven’t had somebody seriously hurt when they go out to do, what is by everyone’s admission, a rather heavy manual labour job,” the ombudsman says. They are “now put in an environment where they are not only a risk to themselves but… they are a risk to others.”
The hope is the review and attitudinal changes already under way will bode well for silviculture in the long term. There already exists a glimmer of light in the form of training making its way out of the woods.
When Gilchrist entered the industry 25 years ago, he recalls receiving about five minutes of training. Now, the entire crew must attend a three-hour meetin
g the night before a job begins to complete a safety seminar and to discuss both company and client philosophies.
Planters are also paired with more experienced workers for a week so that they can gain a firm grasp of “what they’re in for,” says Gilchrist. “In the old days, that’s not the way it was. There’s a whole dialogue now, which is really wonderful and it allows us all to be remote, but somewhat interconnected,” he adds.
Harris says that since 2005, the number of fatalities has been markedly reduced. Figures from the BC Forest Safety Council show that harvesting fatalities fell from 11 in 2006 to six in 2010, while lost-time claims dropped from 1,786 in 2005 to 910 last year. Lost-time claims in forest product manufacturing were also down, numbering 162 in 2006 compared with 75 in 2010.
“I am a big believer that if you don’t keep your foot on the pedal, you will start to stall,” Harris says. Despite deserving credit for improvements that have been made, “I don’t think any of us can afford the luxury of sitting on that and thinking that’s still acceptable.”
Throughout his career as forest technician in charge of administering planting contracts, Gilchrist says that he has witnessed unsanitary conditions, been offered cash bribes to “make things work,” observed two people sitting in the same seat of a vehicle and even had occasion to seize a whip from a foreman.”They had them all planting in a line and the guy had the whip behind them and he was cracking the whip. I was shocked. I was absolutely shocked,” Gilchrist recalls.
Since the Khaira Enterprises affair, it is evident that the industry is being viewed differently, says Betts, who suggests the ombudsman’s review and any resulting recommendations may help repair the public’s impression.
“We’re trying to encourage governments to invest in forestry and when you have this kind of impression going out there,” Betts says, “that doesn’t build you a base of support for much-needed restoration and reforestation work across the country.”
Sinclair argues “it became clear last summer that there is no coordinated enforcement of health and safety regulations or employment standards in the tree-planting industry.” What is needed, he contends, is “a coordinated enforcement system to ensure that workers are treated properly, that work camps comply with public health regulations, and that the work these contractors are being paid to do is carried out properly.”
More generally, the NDP’s Raj Chouhan says he would like to see the province adopt a long-term view of how to enhance conditions. Chouhan suggests a public inquiry should be held whenever there is a death on the job.
That would allow “a broader look” at specific situations, but also provide a vehicle through which changes could be recommended to legislation such as the Employment Standards Act or the Workers’ Compensation Act, he contends.
Jason Contant is editor of canadian occupational health & safety news.