Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Sexual assault in the workplace

An interesting heath and safety story that got basically zero media play this weekend is about a contract cleaner at MacEwan University in Edmonton. The cleaner alleges she was sexually assaulted on the job and, when she complained to her supervisor, she was terminated along with her mother.

The worker, with support from SIEU (which is trying to organize workers of the contract cleaning company at other locations), filed complaints with the police, the human rights commission and occupational health and safety. Here is an excerpt from the human rights complaint filed by the cleaner:
“I was sexually harassed and assaulted by a co-worker. I ran to the front desk and called my supervisor. I explained what happened and my supervisor did not investigate the situation. Instead he told me I was fired. When my mother, who was also an employee, asked questions about the situation, she was also told she was fired. Although I was worried about further assaults from my coworker and it was cold outside, my supervisor insisted that I leave the building and wait alone outside, first for my mother to finish her shift, and then after my mother was also fired, for my mother and I to wait for the police to arrive. The employer and my supervisor had no interest in ensuring my safety or that of any of the women working on my shift and my supervisor has subsequently made it clear that he will not provide assurances that if I were to return to work, the employer would be committed to assuring a safe working environment.”
This sort of event is distressingly common. There are about 350,000 reported violent incidents in Canadian workplaces each year, including about 85,000 sexual assaults (see this StatsCan report for details).

While we do not have all of the information about this particular case, let’s assume for the moment that the assertions that (1) the worker was terminated after reporting an workplace sexual assault and (2) her employer told her to wait outside after terminating her are true.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act requires workers to refuse work involving imminent danger and report instances of imminent danger (s.35(1) and (3)) and employers are also prohibited from disciplining workers who do so (s.36). Sexual assault by a co-worker is not a normal hazard of an occupation and continuing to work with a co-worker who has sexually assaulted a worker appears to pose a risk of imminent danger. Terminating a worker for reporting such a danger seems to be “discipline” as contemplated by the Act.

The Act also employers (as far as reasonably practicable) ensure the health and safety of workers (s.2(1)(a)(i)). Refusing to investigate a complaint and then kicking a victim of sexual assault to the curb (where she would be exposed to the risk of another assault) seems to be a failure to ensure the health and safety of a worker. In this way, the employer’s alleged actions appear to be a violation of the OHS Act as well as common sense and decency.

Assuming the government accepts the worker’s complaint and the investigation supports the worker’s version of events, the question becomes, what will the government do? OHS inspectors typically order remediation in Alberta. It would seem to me, though, that this is an instance where a harsher penalty (i.e., prosecution) is in order. 

It will also be interesting to see how MacEwan University reacts. While MacEwan does not have direct involvement in this (cleaning is done by a contractor), its employees and students as well as the public (which funds it) have certain expectations. If the contractor does not take swift action, MacEwan may face some pressure to terminate its relationship with the contractor.

-- Bob Barnetson

1 comment:

  1. You can see the worker tell her story here:


    It is pretty powerful to watch her tell her story. Unless this a complete fabrication (which seems pretty unlikely to me), the employer has some explaining to do.