Forestry worker abuse connected to B.C. cutbacks

'It’s not rocket science. If we have fewer bodies on the ground and virtually no presence in communities where the work is being done.' - BCGEU.

Vancouver (13 Aug. 2010) - Office closures and staff layoffs dating back to 2003 in the British Columbia forest and range ministry have steadily reduced the ability to monitor operators contracted by the province, says the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU/NUPGE).

Jean Claude Nabulizi, one of the workers abused by an unsupervised forestry contractor in B.C.
Worker Jean Claude Nabulizi at BCFL news conference - Vancouver Sun Photo

After reports of severe abuse, the B.C. government suspended a $280,000 contract this week with Khaira Enterprises Ltd., which had a $280,000 B.C. government contract to clear brush in the area. Twenty-five workers, many of them recent African immigrants, were found living in squalor late last month without proper accommodation, drinking water or bathing facilities.

The B.C. Federation of Labour investigated the Khaira situation and produced a report that itemized the following abuses of workers:

  • No safe drinking water at camp; workers told to drink from a nearby creek.
  • No toilet facilities at the camp.
  • Daily shortage of food and malnourished workers; breakfast consisted of bread, jam and peanut butter; no lunch provided.
  • improper food handling; unrefrigerated chicken served most nights;
  • Unsafe transportation of workers in overloaded and unsafe vehicles.
  • Underpayment and non-payment of wages including cheques returned by banks due to insufficient funds.
  • Employment Standards violations, including misrepresentation of hours worked.
  • Physical and verbal abuse of workers.
  • Workplace racism.
  • Death threats to workers.
  • Refusal of adequate medical treatment for injured workers.
  • Failure to report workplace injuries to the Workers' Compensaion Board (WCB).

BCGEU says the situation is connected directly to sweeping cuts that date back to the first term of office for the Liberal government of Premier Gordon Campbell.

The union says District offices were closed in communities like Golden in 2003 and staff responsible for contract monitoring were laid off. Contracts contain standard language requiring minimum living conditions for camp workers.

“It’s not rocket science. If we have fewer bodies on the ground and virtually no presence in communities where the work is being done, we won’t have reliable monitoring and enforcement,” says Byron Goerz, chair of the union's environmental, technical and operational component.

Goerz has more than a decade of tree planting experience and who authored a book on the subject.

Since the closure in Golden, the area has been administered from Vernon. Reduced staff, increased workloads and longer travel times mean that ministry officials are unable to completely cover the expanded areas of responsibility, the union says.

“Site visits to contract areas are reduced exponentially by every office closure and staff layoff,” says Goerz. “When the local office was open, staff could cover an entire region in a day. Now, they’re lucky to cover off a single area, due to the extra travel time.”

Since forming government in 2001, the Campbell government has eliminated over 1,100 jobs in the ministry of forests and range. This year, 204 more forest ministry jobs are being axed — 62% from compliance and enforcement and field operations. Another 42 positions are being eliminated this year.

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The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE

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