Record-setting human rights award given to temporary foreign workers

January 26th, 2016 by

In May 2015, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario heard a human rights complaint by two applicants, identified as O.P.T. and her sister M.P.T, against their former employer. In O.P.T. v. Presteve Foods Ltd., the sisters alleged discrimination with respect to employment because of sex, sexual harassment, sexual solicitations or advances and reprisals, all contrary to the Human Rights Code.

The sisters came to Canada from Mexico as temporary foreign workers to work for Presteve Foods, a fish operating plant in Wheatley, Ontario. Throughout the course of their employment, both women were subjected to unwanted sexual advances and assaults by their boss, Jose Pratas, accompanied by the threat that they would be “repatriated” to Mexico if they did not do what he wanted.

Specifically, Pratas insisted that he take O.P.T. to dinner on several occasions; she stated that she did not want to go, but felt threatened that she would be sent back to Mexico otherwise. On some of these occasions, while in his car, he told her to remove clothes, touched her or forced her to touch him. Additionally, several times at work he pulled her into his office and touched her inappropriately or forcibly hugged or kissed her. While O.P.T. was at the all-female residence that Presteve Foods’ workers lived in, which Pratas supervised, he forcibly engaged in sexual acts with her on six occasions. He also allegedly told her he loved her and offered financial assistance to her children, which she declined.

On one occasion, which was the last straw for O.P.T., she was harassed by Pratas for going to a bar to watch a soccer game with friends. After calling her repeatedly, he picked her up from the bar, yelled at her and demanded she give him her cell phone. When she did not, he tried to grab it from her, pulled her out of the car by her wrists, and emptied her purse on the ground. At this point, her friend drove by and intervened, taking O.P.T. away from the scene. After this incident, O.P.T. did not return to work for Presteve Foods. However, in the months to follow, Pratas attempted to leave her gifts, contact her, and told her he intended to visit her and her children in Mexico.

During the same time that O.P.T. was being harassed by Pratas, her younger sister M.P.T. also had several unwanted interactions with him. On multiple occasions, he groped or touched her inappropriately at work. He also propositioned her sexually while touching her legs two times while he was in a car with her. Pratas told M.P.T. that she was not allowed to leave the residence for a coffee and threatened to send her home if she did. Finally, when she was unable to account for her sister’s whereabouts on one occasion and did not apologize for being disrespectful to him, he did send her to back to Mexico.

After a complex procedural history, the Tribunal ultimately found that both sisters were entitled to compensation for the human rights violations they had been subjected to. With respect to O.P.T.:

  • Pratas had persistently made unwanted sexual advances while he was in a position of power, threatening her if she did not comply, contrary to s. 7(3)(a) of the Code;
  • Pratas’ conduct constituted sexual harassment, contrary to s.7(2) of the Code. Even the incidents that took place outside of the office were connected closely enough to O.P.T.’s employment that they were found to be harassment in the workplace; and
  • Pratas’ behaviour exceeded the threshold for creating a “sexually poisoned work environment”.

As a result of the “unprecedented seriousness” of Pratas’ conduct towards her, the impact this had on her, and her vulnerability as a migrant worker, O.P.T. was awarded the record amount of $150,000 for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect.

With respect to M.P.T.:

  • As with her sister, M.P.T had experienced repeated violations of s. 7(3)(a) of the Code;
  • Similarly, Pratas’ conduct towards her amounted to sexual harassment, and violated s.7(2) of the Code;
  • Pratas had created a sexually poisoned work environment; and furthermore
  • His treatment of M.P.T. violated s.5(1) of the Code as she had been discriminated against with respect to sex. Pratas had attempted to exercise power and control over her as a woman and, when she defied him, he had retaliated by ending her employment and sending her back to Mexico.

Taking into account her vulnerability and the objective seriousness of Pratas’ conduct towards her, M.P.T. was awarded $50,000 for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect.

Beyond these damages, awarded against Pratas and Presteve Foods jointly and severally, the Tribunal found this to be a situation warranting “public interest awards”. Presteve Foods was ordered to provide all temporary foreign worker with human rights information and training, in their native language, for the next three years.

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