How the law protects actors, freelancers from sexual harassment

After Fringe performer RobYn Slade opened up about sexual harassment during the Winnipeg festival, employment lawyer Tracey Epp outlines the legal actions self-employed individuals can take to address harassment on the job.

There are a number of ways the law protects self-employed individuals, says Winnipeg lawyer Tracey Epp

Winnipeg lawyer Tracey Epp recommends freelancers complain if ever they are harassed on the job. (wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

Earlier this week Winnipeg Fringe actor RobYn Slade spoke out about the prevalence of older men harassing young female performers during the theatre festival.

Slade said when she was 18 she was sexually assaulted by a man she met a Fringe.

Now 30, Slade connects the assault with a larger problem of lecherous older men making advances and inappropriate sexual comments.

Slade said the self-employed nature of the entertainment industry makes coming forward with issues even more complicated for young actors like herself.

Tracey Epp, a lawyer based in Winnipeg, said there are a number of actions freelancers, including actors, can take if they find themselves harassed on the job.

The following exchange has been edited for clarity and length

CBC News: What's your reaction when you hear about actors being targets of sexual harassment and bullying?

Tracey Epp: I didn't find it surprising.

How common is harassment in situations where someone is a freelancer or self employed?

Sadly it's actually not as uncommon as you think it is.

The light at the end of the tunnel in this case is that human rights legislation, and in Manitoba we're talking about the Manitoba Human Rights Code, it does prohibit discrimination and it prohibits sexual harassment.

The Manitoba code says that anyone who's responsible for an activity or an undertaking is responsible to make sure that they don't themselves sexually harass someone but they can also not knowingly allow or permit someone to sexually harass anyone that's within their activity or undertaking.

We don't know yet in Manitoba whether that code applies to independent contractors but I can say that in Ontario and in Alberta there's a number of different cases where adjudicator and arbitrators have said that the code applies even if you are an independent contractor.

If I'm a freelancer is that my only option? Going to the Human Rights Commission?

No because I think there might be more efficient ways of dealing with it.

The first thing someone should always do is complain. If you're an independent contractor or if you're a freelancer you do have a contractual relationship with the organization that you're doing the work for. So you go to them and you complain.

My experience is that not all organizations but most organizations are really sensitive to these kinds of issues. They recognize what their obligation is at law. They may not do it willingly at first, but most organizations don't want to have that kind of a reputation for allowing sexual harassment.

What do you say to a freelancer who doesn't want to be labeled a 'troublemaker'?

If you can identify the person who is actually harassing you, you could always try and take some legal action against that person. Go through legal counsel and write a demand letter saying cease and desist the harassment.

Sexual harassment in and of itself is not considered a ground on which you would sue someone. But you could certainly sue someone for assault, you could sue someone from battery, you might even be able to sue someone for infliction of mental distress. Those kinds of threats are often enough to make someone change their behaviour. Then it would keep the communication between the victim and the alleged perpetrator.

Sometimes the only option you have is to come forward and risk that you may never get any work from this place ever again. The law does prohibit reprisals. You can't punish the person for coming forward and complaining about bad behaviour.

What can people like actors do to protect themselves from harassment?

Be bold. I find that people actually respond really well when somebody asks the question, "Hey do you have a [sexual harassment] policy in place?" or "What do I do if I'm uncomfortable with a situation?" 

At the end of the day this all comes down to education. It's not only educating women and girls about what is acceptable behaviour it's also educating men and boys about what's acceptable.