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Two sides to camp conditions story

Cutbacks at B.C.’s Ministry of Forests and Range have allowed contractors working for the ministry to operate unchecked, the BC Government Employees Union (BCGEU) stated today.

In 2003, the Liberals restructured the ministry, according to a union press release, which resulted in the creation of office closures and layoffs, disabling staff from monitoring forestry contractors.

One office closed was the district office for Golden, B.C..

The union’s critique comes days after the BC Federation of Labour revealed that 30 silviculture workers in Bluewater Creek, located 40 kilometers out of Golden, were discovered living in squalid conditions at the end of July.

Khaira Enterprises Ltd. let workers go unpaid for 15-hour days of clearing brush. The company gave little food, no drinking water or bathroom facilities and provided only two shipping containers for them to sleep in.

Based out of Surrey, the company was operating the camp under a provincial government contract with a safety certificate through B.C Timer Sales (BCTS), a company created in 2003 by the ministry to set cost and price benchmarks for timber harvested from public land in B.C.

Golden is monitored by ministry employees working out of an office in Vernon, however, their effectiveness was constrained by reduced staff, increased workloads and longer travel times, according to the release.

Over 1,100 jobs in the Ministry of Forests and Range have been cut since the Campbell government formed in 2001 and 204 more forest ministry jobs will go this year, including 62 per cent from compliance and enforcement and field operations, the union stated.

The Tyee tried to reach Pat Bell, minister of forests and range, for comment, but he was on vacation and unavailable. The ministry responded on his behalf.

Neither the creation of BCTS or staff reduction this year affected the Khaira’s failure to meet camp standards, wrote the ministry in an e-mail to the Tyee.

“Typically, BCTS inspects a forestry camp soon after it is established to ensure it meets the contract requirements,” stated the ministry.

Workers were moved from a previous location in Revelstoke to Bluewater without notifying BCTS staff and without approval from the Interior Health Authority. When Khaira did contact BCTS on July 20 to inform them of the Bluewater camp, BCTS went the next day to inspect the camp, shortly after compliance and enforcement staff arrived to investigate complaints about burning and open fires.

“Upon discovering the camp, the RCMP, provincial staff and local first responders worked hard to immediately address the workers’ health and safety concerns,” stated the ministry.

“The facts do not support any claims that the ministry reorganizations and staffing levels contributed to the contractor’s actions nor in any way impaired the Province’s ability to respond,” stated the ministry.

The ministry has suspended Khaira from bidding on BCTS contracts for the next year.

Justin Langille reports on the landscape of work for The Tyee.

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