On May 22, 2015, Adjudicator Mark Hart of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario awarded an unprecedented (but certainly warranted) total of $200,000 in damages in O.P.T. and M.P.T. v. Presteve Foods Ltd. and Jose Pratas to two sisters in compensation for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect.
The sisters came to Canada from Mexico under the Government of Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Through this program, they worked at Presteve Foods Ltd.’s fish processing plant in Wheatley, Ontario. They were housed with other Mexican female migrant workers in nearby Leamington, Ontario.
It all seems innocuous enough, until we consider some necessary context.
The context is the reality of migrant workers like the sisters. They are completely reliant on their employers, living under the constant threat that they will lose their jobs. The employers do not need a reason to end these employment relationships, and there is no appeal or review process available to the employees from such a decision. The consequence of losing their job is often quite dire: the workers are repatriated to their home country and, in the process, lose the financial advantages that their Canadian employment provided for themselves and their families.
Enter Jose Pratas, the owner of Presteve Foods. Mr. Pratas’ idea of good management included repeatedly sexually harassing and assaulting these two vulnerable sisters in his employ. Some of the low-lights include:
- Sexually assaulting the sisters in a variety of locations, such as in his car and/or in his office;
- Assaulting the older sister by dragging her out of his car by her wrists after forcing her to leave a bar (an act of chivalry which resulted in Mr. Pratas being found guilty of assault);
- Trying to convince the younger sister that her medical ailments would disappear if she had sex with him (I’m no doctor but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this wasn’t sound medical advice); and
- Ultimately arranging for the younger sister to return to Mexico after she left the Leamington house against his protest to go for coffee with a friend.
In case you haven’t already gleaned this from the details provided above, Mr. Pratas was in the habit of threatening to send the sisters back to Mexico if they did not comply with his demands.
While nothing can truly undo these egregious wrongs, the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal through Vice-Chair Hart did what it could to address them.
An award to compensate for the “experience of victimization” is based upon a number of considerations, including:
- The impact of the infringement
- The duration, frequency and intensity of the offensive conduct
- The vulnerability of the complainant
- The objections to the offensive conduct
- Knowledge that the conduct was unwelcome.
Additional considerations include:
- The objective seriousness of the conduct: the more prolonged, hurtful, and serious the harassment is, the greater the injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect
- The effect on the particular applicant who experienced discrimination: damages will generally be at the high end of the relevant range when the individual has experienced particular emotional difficulties as a result of the event, and when his or her particular circumstances make the effects particularly serious.
After a thorough consideration of these factors, Vice-Chair Hart awarded $150,000 in damages to the older sister and $50,000 in damages to the younger sister. He also acknowledged the fundamental subtext in this case of a man in a position of authority exercising his power, control and dominance over these women.
In his decision, Vice-Chair Hart highlighted the particular vulnerability of these women and others like them when he wrote:
“I have commented in this decision and in my decision in Peart … regarding the particular and special vulnerabilities of migrant workers in Ontario, especially in light of the closed work permit that requires them to be tied to one employer and so be under the constant threat and fear of losing their employment and being repatriated without reason and without any avenue for appeal or review.”
While this significant damages award will hopefully send a strong message to those who would treat such foreign workers (and others who are not in a position to assert their rights) as prey, we need to continue to ensure that the rights of precarious workers in Canada are not forgotten or ignored.