POLITICS

Migrant workers subjected to sexually poisoned environment:Tribunal

05/28/2015 12:11 EDT | Updated 05/28/2016 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario has awarded more than $200,000 to two sisters from Mexico, saying the two temporary foreign workers had been subjected to a "sexually poisoned work environment" by their employer.

Several migrant worker advocates said the ruling shows that the temporary foreign worker program creates conditions that allow for worker exploitation to go unchecked.

The case was originally filed with the tribunal in April 2009 by the CAW-Canada union, now known as Unifor, on behalf of 39 workers employed by a southwestern Ontario fish processing company called Presteve Foods.

Following a criminal proceeding, and after the disputes between the other applicants and the company were resolved, only the two sisters, who can't be named, remained in the human rights case against the company and its former owner, Jose Pratas.

One of the women, known as O.P.T, alleged that between 2007 and 2008 Pratas repeatedly threatened to send her back to Mexico if she didn't comply with his sexual demands which included fellatio and intercourse.

The other woman, known as M.P.T., alleged Pratas, who was married at the time, "sexually propositioned" her on multiple occasions and also threatened to send her back to Mexico.

In his ruling, adjudicator Mark Hart noted that O.P.T's rights violations were particularly significant.

"I find that the personal respondent engaged in a persistent and ongoing pattern of sexual solicitations and advances towards O.P.T. during the period of her employment with Presteve," he wrote. "It is my view that the seriousness of this conduct is unprecedented in terms of this tribunal's previous decisions."

Hart noted that as temporary foreign workers, both women were reliant upon their employers and had to live under the "ever-present threat" of having their employer decide to terminate their position.

He also highlighted O.P.T's testimony in which she spoke about how much Pratas's actions had "hurt her as a woman and a person."

A lawyer for Pratas could not immediately be reached for comment.

A lawyer for Presteve Foods said the current owners of the company, who have run operations since 2010, were "in no way connected" to the events detailed in the tribunal decision.

Erik Grzela said the company's current owners were "committed to respecting human rights and dignity in and out of the workplace."

The tribunal awarded $150,000 in compensation plus $14,957 in interest to be paid to O.P.T, while $50,000 in compensation plus $4,658 in interest was awarded to M.P.T.

Presteve Food, which is located in Wheatley, Ont., east of Windsor, was also ordered to provide any workers hired under the temporary foreign worker program with human rights training in their native language.

O.P.T issued a statement after the ruling, urging all women in similar situations not to stay silent.

"There is justice and they should not just accept mistreatment or humiliation," she said. "Under the temporary foreign worker program, the boss has all the power — over your money, house, status, everything. They have you tied to their will. It has been eight years to obtain justice but...justice is finally here today."

The union representing O.P.T lauded the decision and said it highlighted the failings of the provincial and federal government to protect temporary foreign workers.

"Handcuffing workers to employers creates vulnerability and without meaningful oversight, abuse is inevitable," said Unifor lawyer Niki Lundquist.

The Human Rights Legal Support Centre echoed that view, saying workers in the program are "held hostage" by a single employer.

"While we are satisfied the tribunal ordered financial compensation to two of the women who were assaulted and threatened with deportation, the case cries out for a systemic overhaul of the programs and protections for migrant workers," said spokeswoman Grace Vaccarelli.

Unifor, the Human Rights Legal Support Centre and Justicia for Migrant Workers, are asking for changes to the temporary foreign worker program that would include providing permanent immigration status for migrant workers, ending "closed" work permits that tie workers to one employer, and holding employers and recruiters liable for violations against migrant workers.

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