A new Toronto project aims to arm women facing sexual harassment and assault at low-wage jobs with information on their legal rights.
Formally launched this week by the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, which aids women facing abuse, the #AndMeToo initiative offers free, informal legal advice on everything from constructive dismissal severance and human-rights complaints to criminal-injuries compensation and criminal charges. Staff will also guide survivors of workplace sexual coercion in low-wage industries on navigating strained relationships with their employers, should they choose to stay.
Specifically, the clinic seeks to help women working on farms, in factories and kitchens, or as cleaners, caregivers or nannies, among other low-wage professions that are often seasonal or come via work permits or temp agencies.
Typically, these workplaces offer little in the way of human resources or other safe avenues to voice complaints, said Deepa Mattoo, the clinic’s executive director. At the same time, many of these employers also provide a roof over their staffers’ heads, rides to work or other life essentials. In these conditions, Ms. Mattoo said, women face steep economic risks for disclosing sexual violence on the job.
“The people we work with who are cleaners, or work in kitchens – it’s not as if leaving one exploitative situation opens up another option for them," Ms. Mattoo said. “The reality is that they will be transacted in this economy from one place of exploitation to another. The chain effect is what keeps them quiet.”
The goal is to assist 240 women in the first year of the advocacy project, which is jointly funded by a private donor and the United Way. The clinic is already helping one Toronto woman file for workers’ compensation, as well as a human-rights complaint, after the woman said she was sexually assaulted at her minimum-wage job by a co-worker, who allegedly made sexual remarks about her Latin American accent before following her, cornering her and grabbing her breasts. The 43-year-old mother alleges that her supervisor witnessed the assault, and leered. She said that although she filed a report with management, the harasser continued following her – leading her to eat her lunch in a nearby church, the only place she felt safe during her shifts. After going on sick leave, the woman said she received an ultimatum from her bosses: return to work, where the harasser remains, or quit.
Precariously employed racialized, migrant or immigrant women such as her are more likely to be exposed to sexual harassment, as are women isolated from other co-workers (live-in domestic caregivers) and women who rely on tips (waitresses and bartenders), according to the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Precarious employment often involves low wages, no union protections and no pensions, according to a Law Commission of Ontario report. Such workplaces can be risky, according to the Commission, partly because of workers’ lack of knowledge about their rights and their fears of job loss or deportation.
People who are chronically sexually harassed at work often develop a hypervigilance that becomes damaging to their mental health, said Callandra Cochrane, a staff lawyer at the Toronto clinic. “It’s a place you’re going to for a majority of your week where you don’t feel safe," Ms. Cochrane said. "You’re wondering, is it going to get worse? You’re constantly evaluating how to protect yourself.”
Besides legal consultations, year one of #AndMeToo will also involve training for 600 front-line service providers at shelters and community centres in how to spot the signs of workplace sexual coercion, how to skillfully respond and where to refer survivors. Staff will also work with other lawyers so they can better serve this cohort.
Ms. Mattoo said low-income earning women have been largely excluded from the #MeToo movement that exploded in 2017. So far, #MeToo has been dominated by recognizable accusers disclosing abuse perpetrated by men prominent in politics, arts and the media – this even as precariously employed women are more vulnerable to sexual violence on the job, Ms. Mattoo and other experts argued.
“Even for very financially secure women in Hollywood who made disclosures, there were attendant risks for them and that kept people silent for a very long time," said Janet Mosher, an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School who researches gender-based violence. “For any number of other women, the risks are much more significant.”
The Toronto woman alleging workplace sexual harassment said she now recognizes that she was an easy target: an immigrant making minimum wage, unclear on her rights. “My feeling is that I’m yelling in the middle of the street and nobody’s caring about that,” the woman said.
With help from the clinic’s legal team, she has applied for compensation through Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board and is working with Ms. Cochrane on her human-rights complaint, which may allow her to make demands for systemic change within her company. Recently, the mother also started a support group for other Latin American women being abused at home or at their poorly paying jobs.
“It’s not about compensation,” she said. “It’s about punishing a crime."
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