Trigger Warning: This blog contains content about sexual harassment and abuse
Following the bombshell reports of allegations of sexual misconduct against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, thousands of women have taken to social media to participate in the #MeToo campaign to share stories of harassment and abuse they have faced in their own lives. Having worked in the restaurant industry, I’m no stranger to sexual harassment in the workplace. While it has been disheartening and dejecting to see the vast number of women joining the campaign, witnessing so many brave women banding together in an effort to foster positive change has been somewhat inspiring. In the hopes of helping those who find themselves affected by these types of heinous acts, the campaign has inspired me to write about the different legal avenues available to people who wish to take action against sexual harassment in the workplace.
The Human Rights Regime
Employment is a protected social area under the Ontario Human Rights Code, which means people should not be subjected to sexual harassment or discrimination by employers, by other employees or by members of the public when they are in the workplace. People that have been subjected to this harassment can file an application at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. The forms are available online (click here) and there is no fee for filing an application. The time limit for filing is one year from the date of the last incident.
The Occupational Health and Safety Act (“the OHSA”)
Ontario employees are protected against harassment, whether sexual or otherwise, in the workplace. The OHSA requires employers to prepare policies to address workplace harassment (which is defined to include workplace sexual harassment) and violence and to create programs to implement those policies. If the employer becomes aware of an incident of workplace harassment or violence, the employer must investigate the incident. Similarly to a human rights application, the forms are available online (click here) and there is no fee for filing a complaint. When deciding whether to file a human rights application or a complaint to the Ministry of Labour (the ministry that oversees OHSA), it is important to note that there are no damages available under the OHSA for a violation. Rather, damages are only available for reprisal – i.e., an employee will only be awarded damages if they are punished as a result of their harassment complaint.
The Civil Route
Employees may be able to sue for such torts as assault, battery and intentional infliction of mental stress. Depending on the circumstances, a court may award aggravated and/or punitive damages. Survivors of sexual assault may be able to receive compensation through the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board.
If there’s anything we can take away from the magnitude of this online campaign it’s that sexual harassment and abuse is a pervasive problem that affects many women (and some men) of different walks of life. You are not alone. It is an unfortunate reality that, even on the heels of the #MeToo campaign – in essence, a peaceful and incredibly important protest that spans the globe, spurred on by the power of social media – we have a long way to go before we live in an era in which these issues disappear entirely. Regardless, for now, it’s important to understand that there are avenues available, however imperfect they may be at this moment in time. And hopefully, after reading this blog, you’re more aware of your legal options should you wish to take action.
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