An Ontario Human Rights Tribunal ruling has highlighted the vulnerability of temporary foreign workers in a case where two women worked in what the tribunal called a "sexually poisoned work environment."

The women had their work permits revoked and were sent back to Mexico after resisting the sexual overtures of their employer at Presteve Foods, a fish processor in Wheatley, Ont. One woman was forced to perform sex acts under threat of being sent home and both were sexually harassed in other ways, the tribunal found.

Adjudicator Mark Hart awarded $150,000 to one complainant and $50,000 to another in the case, but said he could not comment directly on the temporary foreign worker program, which is a federal responsibility.

'They're creating conditions of dependence by tying workers to their employers' - Niki Lundquist, counsel to abused workers

However, he repeatedly pointed out the power the employer wielded over his workers, referring to one of the complainants as MPT. 

"As a result of the nature of the temporary foreign worker programs in Canada, MPT worked under the ever-present threat of being sent back to Mexico if she did not do what she was told, which was made explicit to her by the [employer] and which ultimately was acted on by him in a discriminatory manner," Hart wrote in his judgment.

He wrote that "migrant workers ... live under the ever-present threat of having their designated employer decide to end the employment relations for which they require no reason and for which there is no appeal or review."

The tribunal found that the women, who were sisters, were exposed to sexual solicitation, sexual harassment, discrimination in employment and a sexually poisoned work environment.

Criminal charges were laid and the man involved was convicted on one count. The rights tribunal was not ruling on the harassment case, but only on whether the workers' rights were violated. 

Hart also noted that the workers, who had limited understanding of English, were not informed of their right not to be sexually harassed by an employer.

Failure to protect foreign workers, union says

The union Unifor, which led the case before the rights tribunal, said the ruling underscores the failings of the provincial and federal governments to protect temporary foreign workers.

It also issued a statement on behalf of one of the complainants, who said it has taken eight years for her to obtain justice.

"I want to tell all women that are in a similar situation, that they should not be silent and that there is justice and they should not just accept mistreatment or humiliation. We must not stay silent," she said in her statement.

"[As a migrant] one feels that she/he has to stay there [in the workplace] and there is nowhere to go or no one to talk to. 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," she said.

Unifor, the Human Rights Legal Support Centre and Justicia for Migrant Workers, which supported the women in bringing their case to the rights tribunal, are calling for changes to the temporary foreign worker program to prevent this kind of abuse.

Dependent on employer

"You can't protect women in the system that we have. If there's a person going to do a bad thing, there's nothing we're going to be able to do to stop it," said Niki Lundquist, who works for Unifor and was legal counsel to the women.

"They're creating conditions of dependence by tying workers to their employers. They have to address that — if they don't deal with that people will not be able to speak out because their ability to stay in the country is going to be dependent on the goodwill of the employer," she said.

Nor is abuse limited to the temporary foreign workers program, she said.

"It's not unique to this program. We hear of abuses in the seasonal agricultural workers program, and the caregivers' program," she said.

Unifor and the other interveners are calling for:

  • Permanent immigration status for migrant workers.
  • Ending closed work permits so that migrant workers are no longer indentured to a single employer.
  • Holding both employers and recruiters liable for violations against migrant workers.

The women in this case have returned to Canada as immigrants and are now settled here.