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Canada Temporary foreign workers win sexual harassment case

Two women who came to Canada as temporary foreign workers have been given one of the largest awards in the history of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal after their employer was found to have repeatedly sexually harassed them.

The two workers, originally from Mexico, were awarded more than $150,000 and $50,000 respectively as compensation for injury to their dignity, feelings and self-respect. The judgment was issued by the tribunal against the former owner of Presteve Foods Ltd. in Wheatley, Ont., Jose Pratas, and was the result of a process that began more than seven years ago.

One woman, known only O.P.T., said she received unwanted sexual advances from Mr. Pratas that included going out to dinner with him under threat that if she did not accept, he would send her back to Mexico. That escalated to unwanted touching of her breasts in his office as well as oral sex and penetrative sex.

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The woman, O.P.T., said she complied because she feared being sent back home and needed the money her employment would provide for her family.

In his ruling, tribunal vice-chair Mark Hart said the seriousness of the conduct in this case is unprecedented and justifies very significant compensation. He also made specific reference to the woman's vulnerability as a migrant worker and single mother who came to Canada after her husband had been killed. Because she was in Canada as a temporary foreign worker, her status was dependent on her relationship with her employer, he wrote.

"Migrant workers like O.P.T. live under the ever-present threat of having their designated employer decide to end the employment relationship, for which they require no reason and for which there is no appeal … ," Mr. Hart wrote.

The second claimant, known as M.P.T., said her employer's behaviour made her feel embarrassed, angry and sad. "I was focused on coming to this country to work and I never thought this would happen to me," she said through a translator. "It marked me very deeply."

She said she wants other migrants to know there is justice and they should not stay silent. "We can't let them mistreat us and humiliate us. We have to turn to the law and never lose faith," M.P.T. said.

Niki Lundquist is a lawyer for Unifor who acted on behalf of the two applicants. She said the case provides a sense of justice for the victims.

Mr. Pratas was also charged criminally in connection to these allegations and pleaded guilty to one charge.

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"From a broader perspective, this case isn't just about them. This kind of sexual harassment flourishes in these situations," Ms. Lundquist said. "This program is creating these conditions of dependency. … They're dependent for their pay, their housing, their immigration status. So they quietly endure."

In a statement, Presteve Foods Ltd. said the company has been under new ownership since 2010. "The events referred to in the HRTO decision occurred before the current ownership and are in no way connected to the current ownership, which has been committed to respecting human rights and dignity in and out of the workplace," said Erik Grzela, in-house counsel at Presteve Foods.

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