(Canadian OH&S News) — The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ruled on May 23 that racism — and in one Caucasian woman’s case, sexual harassment — was at play in an employer’s mistreatment of tree planting employees at a work camp in Golden in July 2010. The co-owners of Surrey-based Khaira Enterprises Ltd., Khalid Mahmood Bajwa and Hardilpreet Singh Sidhu, have been ordered to pay $10,000 to each of the 55 complainants, plus $1,000 for every month that Khaira employed each worker, bringing the total to about $600,000.
The African workers named in the complaint had come to Canada from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Guinea and Rwanda, many as refugees. The tribunal found that the discrimination in the camp included Khaira withholding the wages of African workers, while South Asian and Caucasian workers were paid in full. Employees were also subjected to harassment through racial slurs, such as “nigger” and “lazy dog,” and substandard toilet facilities.
Tribunal member Norman Trerise wrote in the decision that the bathroom facilities at the camp site, in which toilet paper was not provided to workers, were comparable to “conditions on the slave ships transporting slaves throughout ports on the Atlantic Ocean.
“Viewed from the perspective of a dispassionate, reasonable black worker encountering similar circumstances, the circumstances were discriminatory,” Trerise noted. “There is little doubt that every worker who worked for Khaira in 2010 experienced some form of adverse treatment,” he wrote, adding that “it is clear to me that Bajwa has no difficulty tailoring his evidence to what he believes is required to advance his case.”
The B.C. Federation of Labour (BCFL) is pressing the provincial government to compensate the workers. “We have written to the Minister of Labour to ask for a meeting, and we’re going to continue to press that the government has to step up to the plate and apologize to these people and give them the money that is owed to them,” said BCFL president Jim Sinclair. “They were planting trees on behalf of the government on public property, for the future of British Columbians.”
Sarah Khan, a lawyer at the British Columbia Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC) who represented the workers in their complaint, is pleased with the outcome. “This is the most thorough analysis of anti-black discrimination as far as we’re aware of in the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.”
The BCPIAC was also happy that the tribunal accepted the evidence of witness Dr. Wanda Thomas Bernard, professor of social work at Dalhousie University in Halifax, regarding the “everydayness” of racism that African tree planters experience, reported Khan.
“It sets a precedent in B.C. in terms of saying very, very clearly and thoroughly that black racism is an unfortunate part of life in B.C.,” she said. “Also, it sends a message that pretty large damage awards can be issued against employers if they engage in this type of racism.”
In January 2011, the Employment Standards Division ordered Khaira to pay nearly $229,000 for violations. To this date, $100,000 has been collected by the government through the company bid deposit, plus another $30,000 through collections proceedings. The owners have filed for bankruptcy according to media reports; contact information for the company is not available online.
Sinclair was not convinced that Khaira would pay any money to the workers. “The fact is, these employers, since these people were discovered, haven’t paid one penny to these people. And they’re not going to pay any of this money, in my estimation,” he contended.