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B.C. rights tribunal awards $600,000 to tree planters who faced discrimination

VANCOUVER - Racial taunts and other discriminatory behaviour aimed at a group of African workers has prompted the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal to order the owners of a tree planting firm to pay them more than $600,000 for injury to their dignity and self respect.

In a ruling released Friday, tribunal member Norman Trerise said the owners of Khaira Enterprises Ltd. had no regard for employment standards for the 55 workers who launched the human rights complaints.

"There is little doubt that every worker who worked for Khaira in 2010 experienced some form of adverse treatment," Trerise said in his ruling.

"All of them were victims of Khaira's blatant disregard for the Employment Standards Act and its requirement respecting time of payment, overtime, vacation pay, hours of work, working camp conditions and so forth, regardless of whether they were black African workers or not."

The tree planters worked in a camp in Golden, B.C., until it was shut down by the provincial Ministry of Forests after the planters complained that they hadn't had anything to eat for two days.

The workers, many of whom were refugees, told a tribunal hearing that they were subjected to extreme racial harassment, were forced to live in deplorable conditions and eat rancid food.

While Trerise found that working conditions in the camp were essentially the same for all the employees, he said many of the African workers were singled out.

Khalid Bajwa and Hardilpreet Sidhu, the owners of Khaira, denied allegations of mistreatment and said if there was any discrimination, it was unintentional.

Neither owner could be reached for comment.

Eugene Kung, one of two lawyers representing the workers, said human rights tribunals often hear from employers saying they didn't mean harm. He said this decision means that excuse doesn't matter.

Sarah Kahn, who also represented the workers, said she was extremely relieved to read the decision.

"A lot of the workers put a lot of time and effort in to bring this complaint forward, knowing that they had very little chance of recovering any money," she said.

"So we felt we had a responsibility to try to do the best job that we could to ... get a finding, and acknowledge that what they endured was not fair and was in fact discrimination under the Human Rights Code."

The tribunal heard that the owners owed the workers $245,000 after they left in 2010. Kahn said about $130,000 was still owing.

The tribunal has ordered the company to pay each worker $10,000 for injury to their dignity and self-respect, plus $1,000 for every 30-day period each worked between March 17, 2010, and June 17, 2010.

Khan said she believes the decision sets a precedent in the province.

"I think this is the first case that we're aware of in B.C. history where the human rights tribunal has done such a through analysis of anti-black racism. And the prevalence of that racism in the everydayness of it for people who have to endure it all the time."

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