The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) is pleased to mark Sexual Harassment Awareness Week. Sexual harassment continues to be a critical issue across Ontario society. Recent news coverage of incidents affecting female reporters while on the job highlights the pervasiveness of the problem for women at work. The OHRC has long recognized the serious impact of sexual harassment on its victims, and on an organization’s morale and overall productivity.
Sexual harassment is against the law. The Ontario Human Rights Code (Code) prohibits sexual harassment in employment, services, housing, and other specified “social areas”. Employers, housing providers, service providers, and other organizations covered by the Code have a legal duty to prevent and respond to sexual harassment. They must make sure they maintain poison-free environments that respect human rights. It is not acceptable to ignore sexual harassment, whether or not someone has formally made a complaint. If inappropriate sexual behaviour is not dealt with, it may escalate to more serious forms, including sexual assault and other violence.
Our 2013 Policy on Preventing Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment outlines the importance of the Code in dealing with sexual harassment. It sets out the Code’s protections against sexual harassment, and provides practical steps to organizations on how to prevent and respond to it. It describes ways in which a person who believes they have been sexually harassed can enforce their rights.
People who have experienced sexual harassment can file a complaint (called an “application”) with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO). They can contact the Human Rights Legal Support Centre (HRLSC) for human rights legal services, which can include legal assistance in filing human rights complaints, and legal representation at mediations and hearings.
On May 22, 2015, the HRTO released its latest decision dealing with sexual harassment in O.P.T. v. Presteve Foods Ltd. In that case, the HRTO found that the respondent, the owner of a fish processing plant, sexually harassed two of his employees. The employees were sisters from Mexico hired as temporary foreign workers. The respondent engaged in a persistent pattern of discrimination, sexual harassment in the workplace, and sexual solicitation and advances that created a sexually poisoned environment for the women. For example, the owner subjected O.P.T. to repeated sexual touching, which escalated into unwanted sex acts. When she refused his advances, he threatened to send her back to Mexico.
The HRTO found that because the owner was part of the “directing mind” of the company, the company, as well as the owner, was liable for the sexual harassment. The HRTO ordered more than $150,000 and $50,000 respectively in damages to the two women. The HRLSC represented Justicia for Migrant Workers, an organization that intervened in the case.
The Government of Ontario’s recently-announced Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment recognizes the damage caused by sexual violence and harassment and outlines concrete measures to stop these behaviours. As a member of the Action Plan Advisory Roundtable, the OHRC will continue to work with the Government and our community partners to ensure that, together, we take action to stop sexual harassment and sexual violence.
Sexual Harassment Awareness Week provides an excellent opportunity to continue the important conversation about the root causes of sexual harassment, its impacts, how to prevent it, and how to it address when it occurs.
Join the OHRC and the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) on July 7th for a special webinar, Preventing sexual harassment at work.