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It began with a dispute over a dirty workplace and a boss's outburst at a group of immigrant workers. Now a human-rights case is being appealed to Quebec's highest court.

At issue is whether the boss's hectoring words about keeping clean were merely insulting or amounted to discrimination based on his workers' ethnic origins.

To the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal, the exchange between a boss and his staff at a Montreal import company was a clear case of bias. It ordered the company to pay 15 Chinese-born employees $10,000 each in moral and punitive damages.

To the employer's lawyer, high-profile human-rights advocate Julius Grey, it was merely an angry flare-up that should never have been subject to scrutiny under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The conflict arose in 2006 at Calego International Inc., a bag and knapsack company in Montreal. Executive Stephen Rapps, incensed by the state of his company's bathrooms and kitchen, convened his Chinese-born workers and proceeded to lecture them about their personal hygiene. He brought in a Chinese interpreter to ensure everyone understood.

"This is Canada, not China," Mr. Rapps said, according to testimony cited in a court decision. "We take showers and shampoo every day, wash hands with soap, flush the toilet after use. … This is my kitchen, not yours. My kitchen, I want it clean. You Chinese eat like pigs."

The employees, many of them recent immigrants from China who did mostly manual jobs for as little as $5 an hour, were so stunned they walked off the job. Despite the diverse makeup of the staff, only the Chinese workers were summoned to the meeting, the court found.

The group returned the next day, demanding an apology, compensation and better upkeep of the kitchen and bathroom. When the two sides didn't see eye to eye, the workers filed a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission.

The case wound up in court, which concluded this month that the workers had suffered bias. Mr. Rapps's "infantilizing" remarks, made in an "arrogant and condescending tone," constituted "hurtful, degrading and humiliating comments" related to the workers' Chinese heritage, it said.

That is not the view of Mr. Grey, who is appealing to the Quebec Court of Appeal. Mr. Grey said his client's words may have been insulting, but they didn't constitute discrimination since the workers didn't suffer a penalty such as a pay cut or suspension.

"We are not going to pass a law against people insulting each other," said Mr. Grey, whose cases include the landmark Supreme Court victory by a Sikh schoolboy to wear a kirpan to school. "We have to stop assuming that everyone's feel-good dignity is more important than freedom of expression."

"What this type of ruling tries to enforce is not non-discrimination, but political correctness," said Mr. Grey, who denies his client singled out Chinese workers or referred to their ethnic origins. "The theory that because somebody feels humiliated [that person]has to be compensated is wrong. The Charter of Rights was not meant to prevent people from being humiliated or insulted."

The workers were helped by the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations in Montreal, a rights group that said the court's ruling establishes limits on workplace conduct. "Employers have to be very careful not only about how they treat employees but what they say to employees, even if they are under stress or angry," said executive director Fo Niemi. "Race-based insults should not be part of your job."

The workers said they vividly felt the sting of their employers' remarks. "Before coming to Canada, I had read stories that people were so nice and kind," said Xiang Ma, a computer engineer in China before emigrating to Canada. She filed a complaint "because he insulted Chinese people. I felt I had lost my dignity."