06/30/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/30/2016 05:59 EDT

Sex Abuse Case Highlights Vulnerability Of Workers On Visas

Monty Rakusen

The experience of a Mexican woman, known as OPT, is a poster case for the terrible situation women face when confronted by abuse and the built-in limitations of Canada's temporary foreign workers program.

Brought in from Mexico to work in a fish-packing plant in Wheatley, Ont., she soon was singled out by her employer for special attention, separating her from the other women.

First there were inappropriate remarks, then touching, then he threatened to send her home unless she performed sex acts. He had taken her passport away and she was afraid. Another woman working for the same employer was sent back to Mexico after refusing his advances.

A human rights tribunal would find both women were exposed to sexual solicitation, sexual harassment and discrimination in employment.

And they weren't the only ones.

A group of Thai women who worked for the same employer had already tried to get help in dealing with what the adjudicator in the  human rights tribunal would call a "sexually poisoned workplace."

In all, 39 women would take part in a criminal and human rights case against Presteve Foods. In the end, only OPT and her sister would stay for the eight years it took to get a judgment.

It was an egregious case of abuse, so much so that it was difficult to believe it happened in a Canadian workplace. How could so many women be left powerless in the face of an employer who used the threat of deportation to force his sexual advances?

"I think the case is so important because it recognizes the vulnerabilities of women under the TFW programs. And it's structural vulnerabilities – not just what happened in this case," said Kerry Preibisch, an expert in migrant workers who gave testimony before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

Employer has all the power

Preibisch points to how being tied to a single employer, with that employer having sole discretion over how much money they make, where they live and when they are sent home,  makes women vulnerable to abuse.

"A poor employer has absolute power in that relationship.  Their ability to work is dependent on a single designated employer," she told CBC News.

There ought to be multiple changes to the federal program that admits foreign workers on visas, she said, but the first should be to allow movement between employers. Otherwise, employers simply threaten to send them home if they complain about working conditions, living conditions, safety or abuse.

In the case of OPT, she was forced into sex acts in a car when her employer was transporting her to a doctor's appointment and later in her bedroom in the home that was owned by the employer – where several migrant workers lived.

Adjudicator Mark Hart awarded $150,000 to OPT and $50,000 to another woman, affirming their rights had been abused, but he stopped short of making recommendations to the federal government about the temporary foreign worker program. He said that was not part of his role as a tribunal adjudicator.

However, his report emphasized the vulnerability of migrant workers "especially in light of the closed work permit which 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."

Poor and vulnerable

Preibisch said many women admitted to Canada under the temporary foreign workers program are single mothers and the sole support for their family. They have mortgaged the family's land or gone into debt to pay a recruiter for access to a job in Canada. They feel they cannot afford to be sent home.

Under the low-skilled workers program, one of three programs involving temporary worker visas in Canada along with agricultural workers and live-in caregivers, about 65 per cent who are admitted are male.

These women have already beaten the odds to get a job in Canada, overcoming discrimination in hiring practices in their own countries. By choosing to work in Canada, they avoid having to make a dangerous journey with criminal gangs to sneak into the U.S. to work.

Anecdotal reports of sexual harassment in the past have often involved co-workers, Preibisch said.

"Women are working in masculine environments and these women are seen as sexually available by their co-workers," she said.

Many are socially isolated, either because they cannot speak English, they are working in rural areas, or they work long hours. And very few know their rights in the workplace.

The only reason OPT and her sister were able to carry their case to completion was because a union got involved.

Unifor initially tried to unionize a group of 29 Thai workers working at Presteve Foods. These women worked alongside Canadians who were unionized and they asked to be part of a union because they said they were not being paid as they'd been promised.

It was while these Thai women were talking to Unifor about their working conditions that the first stories of sexual abuse in the workplace began to emerge.

'Sexually poisoned' workplace

Unifor added an additional 10 Mexican women, who were hired later by the same company, to a complaint that eventually ended up on the desk of the human rights tribunal. There were initially 17 complaints before the tribunal, six of them involving sexual misconduct.

The case first went to a criminal trial, where the owner of Presteve Foods was convicted only of a single charge of assault.

In the meantime, some of the women were sent home, some went of their own accord, some who worked for a recruiter were able to transfer to another job. A number of the women accepted a settlement from Presteve Foods. For many, the experience was too traumatic for them to want to stay.

Only OPT and her sister lasted to the end, eight years after the abuse started.

"The work I did was as a fish filleter, but the manner that we were treated was very, very ugly," OPT told CBC News. "He was always angry, we were yelled at, we were humiliated.

"I think those who hear of this decision, including employers, should understand that people who come to work here are poor people and they come to work," she said. 

OPT said she hoped her case would help make other women brave.

"I hope that there will be a difference, that people will be able to talk, and that they will not be silent." 

Cathy Kolar of Legal Assistance of Windsor worked closely with the two women and has questions for the federal and provincial governments now that the human rights case has closed.

"Why was the provincial government ignorant of it and why is there no discussion now in light of this ruling, particularly when you have a case of...vulnerable women," she said.

"It is now up to the federal and provincial government to ask what happened in the program. We've very clearly articulated problems within the program."

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