Khaira Controversy: A chance for improvements in contract management

The controversy around allegations made by workers against the forestry contracting firm Khaira Enterprises has amounted to a national embarrassment for British Columbia and its silviculture contracting industry.

The alleged treatment of the planters and brushers seems truly shocking. But this mess may lead to needed improvements in how government agencies and some licensees manage silviculture contracts and workplaces if Labour Minister Murray Coell’s investigation addresses deficiencies in the enforcement of existing regulations and contract requirements.

British Columbia has the most developed silviculture camp standards regulations in Canada. They have evolved over the years in a constructive collaboration between the silviculture contracting industry, health authorities, the Ministry of Forests and Range and other agencies. Silviculture camps are typically temporary and transient, as the demands of forestry work and its field season require. But across the province temporary forestry camps provide potable water, nourishing food, adequate shelter and clean facilities to thousands of workers each year.

In 2000 the government amended the Employment Standards Regulation to include special rules for silviculture workers. This silviculture regulation primarily ensures forestry workers paid piecework have the same general rights and receive fair treatment as other workers across B.C. These news rules were brought into place through collaboration between the industry and the government of the day. They are followed by responsible contractors.

The problem is not that we need more or different rules to govern the behaviour of the silviculture contracting community which includes tree planters, brushers, spacers, cone-pickers, fire fighting and forest fuel management crews. What is needed is more effective enforcement of the existing rules that govern contractor behaviour. That puts the onus on government agencies, licensees and authorities that tender contracts and oversee the silviculture workplace to ensure that shirkers, scofflaws and criminals are corrected or weeded out.

It has been a perennial frustration for the legitimate silviculture contractor majority to see a minority of law-breakers and poor performers persist in the industry. Often they behave badly only to be back the next year seemingly with impunity. Some have returned even after criminal convictions related to fraud or theft on a previous contract. Even though these poor performers represent a small percentage of the industry the consequences of their behaviour goes beyond just being a nuisance in the marketplace. Their continual exploitation of lax enforcement puts workers in jeopardy and undermines the credibility of the good work of responsible contractors and the industry as a whole.

It has to be said that the circumstantial evidence would suggest that contract administrators are acting out of ignorance of the principles of due diligence. Too many administrators think when they contract out work they contract out any responsibility for how contractors behave conducting that work. Not only is this false, it violates the terms of government’s own contracts which state that the defense of due diligence is only available to administrators “if it can be demonstrated that all reasonable care was exercised in the conduct of the operations.” Recent allegations suggest an egregious failing in this regard.

Management and operational practices will improve if the minister’s investigation leads to specific guidelines around implementing contracts so provisions requiring contractor compliance with all laws affecting the work are taken seriously. It would also help if WorkSafeBC can come up with unambiguous direction that the owner actually provides the legally required Notice of Project, and how that information can be shared with the authorities that oversee silviculture camps and workplaces. In particular, the government has to remedy the continual problem of dealing with the often adverse outcomes of tendering in a low bid auction. If government is going to go generally with the cheapest price, then that requires even more stringent pre-qualification and monitoring processes to ensure that public money is properly spent and only companies fit to contract are active in the silviculture sector.