A “virtual slave” through sexual harassment and violence only awarded $50,000 as general damages

Apr 21, 2015

A “virtual slave” through sexual harassment and violence only awarded $50,000 as general damages

In a recent decision, PN v. MR and FR the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal (“the Tribunal”), heard an appalling description of sexual harassment and physical violence and other humiliating and degrading treatment of a domestic care worker by her employers.

The employee, PN, a young Filipino woman, began her employment as a housekeeper and caregiver for her employers in Hong Kong.  Her abhorrent treatment began in Hong Kong. Upon moving to Canada with her employers, the behaviour continued.  Her employers limited the amount of food PN ate, they belittled her, controlled her movements inside and outside of the accommodation, refused to let her contact her family, failed to pay her wages and paid her significantly less than minimum wage, confiscated her passport, threatened her, physically assaulted her, and forced her to perform sexual acts. Eventually, PN was able to flee and found legal and psychological support. It is unclear from the decision if the Respondents were charged criminally.

After hearing the evidence, the Tribunal concluded that “there was significant physical harassment” which occurred while PN was “isolated and intimidated.” She “suffered symptoms consistent with posttraumatic stress disorder… She had to flee with nothing; not clothes, not money, not friends.”

The Tribunal noted that its highest award of damages to compensate for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect, also called ‘general damages’, was $75,000.  Despite this, the Tribunal found the appropriate award in the PN case to be $50,000.

In the Tribunal’s Kelly decision, Dr. Kelly had been diagnosed with ADHD. As a result of discrimination by the University of British Columbia, Dr. Kelly lost the opportunity to complete his medical residency program, and to become licensed and practice medicine. He suffered humiliation and embarrassment as a result of the discrimination he faced. The Tribunal awarded him $75,000 as damages for injury to for injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect and $385,194.70 as damages for lost wages.

It is hard to imagine how a case involving exploitation, sexual harassment, sexual violence and physical violence along with other degrading treatment and forced social isolation would not garner a similar award of general damages to that of the Kelly decision. It is also not clear from the PN decision, why the adjudicator awarded $25,000 less than in the Kelly decision.

I have often called for an increase in the value of awards at human rights tribunals across the country. In Ontario, the Human Rights Tribunal has never awarded general damages as high as $75,000 and on average these awards range between $10,000 and $15,000. With the recent increased attention on precarious employment, vulnerable workers, and the continuation of sexual harassment and violence in the workplace, the PN hearing provided an opportunity for the BC Tribunal to convey to employers that degrading and exploiting vulnerable workers will not be tolerated and will be punished severely.  Unfortunately, the Tribunal did not seize this opportunity. This decision begs the question what must happen to an employee before a significant amount of damages will be awarded.

If you have experienced discrimination or harassment at work, and you want to speak with an employment and human rights lawyer, contact us at [email protected] or 1-888-640-1728 (toll free) or 647-633-9894 (within the GTA).

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