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Highest to Date Damages Awarded for Sexual Harassment in OPT v Presteve Foods LTD

Recently the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) released a landmark decision that sends a strong message to employers. [1] In the face of the respondent's conduct, which the Tribunal called "unprecedented", the complainants were awarded by far the largest general damages awards, ever given by a human rights tribunal in Canada. This award is almost three times greater than the highest order given by the HRTO and demonstrates that serious and persistent breaches of the Human Rights code will have substantial financial consequences. The decision will hopefully set a general trend of increased damage awards across the board. 

Presteve Foods, the respondent, hired two sisters as temporary foreign workers into their fish processing plant. The sisters alleged that during the course of their employment the owner of Presteve Foods, Jose Pratas (the personal respondent), subjected them to "unwanted sexual solicitations and advances by the personal respondent, including sexual assaults and touching; a sexually poisoned work environment; discrimination in respect of employment because of sex; and reprisal". Among other things, the Tribunal found that Mr. Pratas forced one of the sisters to perform sexual acts with him on a number of occasions as well as regularly threatened to send the sisters back to their native country if they did not comply. As temporary foreign workers' employment can be terminated by the employer without a reason, the two sisters were totally dependent on Mr. Pratas for their livelihood and had no choice but to comply with his demands in order to avoid deportation.

The Tribunal found that Mr. Pratas engages in a persistent pattern of sexual harassment towards the sisters, and his egregious behavior was a serious violation of the Human Rights Code in addition to Mr. Pratas' actions being criminal offences. The Vice-Chair, Mark Hart, found that the seriousness of Mr. Pratas' conduct along with the sisters' particular vulnerability as migrant workers justified a substantial and unprecedented award of $150,000.00 and $50,000.00 to each sister respectively for injuries to their dignity, feelings and self-respect.

The case is important for two reasons. On one hand the Tribunal firmly recognized the unique position of vulnerability of foreign migrant workers. On the other, the decision confirmed the willingness of the Tribunal to issue large general awards in cases that warrant such outcome. The ceiling for general damages has been raised, and this signals a trend where the financial consequences for employers unwilling to provide a harassment free workplace are becoming increasingly more substantial.

O.P.T. v. Presteve Foods Ltd., 2015 HRTO 675 (CanLII)

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