“Since I started working at Greenjeans there was not a single day there I wasn’t called a fucking Latino, a spic, a dirty Mexican, a cockroach or a fucking homo,” claims Sebastian Jaramillo, who was employed as a waiter at Mr Greenjeans, a busy restaurant within the Toronto Eaton Centre, from Feb 29, 2008 until he quit in April of this year.
A gay refugee from Colombia who has been living in Canada for five years, Jaramillo further claims his manager verbally harassed him, applied unwarranted disciplinary measures such as suspension from work and physically shoved him.
“In Colombia there’s nothing you can do if someone treats you badly,” says Jaramillo. “It angers me that now, in Canada, people protect this kind of behaviour in others.”
In January he filed a grievance with the union Unite Here that went nowhere. According to Jaramillo his union representative informed him in late February that the company’s owner and president, Maury Kalen, had responded by saying the grievance was invalid because the union’s contract with the restaurant had expired.
Kalen confirms that he received a call but says he didn’t find out at that time what the grievance was about. “My response was I wanted to renew the collective agreement, which reached an end in June of 2006. Let’s have a contract, let’s get the collective agreement formalized and only then can we create a grievance procedure.”
But in the meantime Jaramillo says he was struggling to cope with his work situation. “I was fed up and having panic attacks. I couldn’t sleep, my mental health has been affected very badly, I am so depressed, I’m freaking out. So I went online and I was looking for help… I came across the Human Rights Tribunal so I went and told a lawyer my story.”
That lawyer was the Human Rights Legal Support Centre’s Melissa Marks. On Jun 9 she officially filed a complaint with the tribunal on Jaramillo’s behalf.
“I just want justice,” says Jaramillo. “I don’t want anyone else there to go through what I’ve been through. It’s disgusting.”
Marks says the alleged violations fall into two categories.
“We’re going to argue that the individual who did harass Sebastian was his immediate manager. So a) they’re liable for his actions and b) the company is also liable for not taking his complaint seriously, for allowing what we call a poisoned work environment to exist, to allow these comments to go unheeded, with no attempt to rectify the situation at all.”
“I’m a little taken aback,” responds Kalen. “I started Mr Greenjeans in 1975; we’ve probably served 15 million people and who knows how many thousands we’ve employed. I’m proud to say and happy to say this is the first time we’ve ever had anybody make a human rights complaint.”
Kalen says he’s asked for a report in writing from the manager named in the complaint. “Whether there’s a personality clash between two people I don’t know, but I will find out. We will get to the bottom of it, we will do what’s right, and we will not tolerate any kind of bias.”
The Mr Greenjeans Corporation has 35 days to file a written response, after which the complainant may in turn reply in writing.
“If those parties agree, there will be a mediation scheduled at the tribunal,” says Marks.
Jaramillo is seeking compensation for lost wages from the day he left. “We’re going to argue that he was compelled to leave, he didn’t quit voluntarily,” says Marks. “He knew that nothing was going to be done about the harassment so he left.”
Jaramillo is also claiming general damages as compensation for injury to “dignity, feelings and self-respect” as provided for in the Ontario Human Rights Code, as well as a few nonmonetary results.
“We are going to be asking for a couple of what are called public interest remedies… to ensure that this discrimination does not occur again,” says Marks.
In this case that will include requests that the company institute an antiharassment policy and that the respondents undergo training on the rights and obligations of employees under the Code.
Marks expects the initial process to take six months to one year. “If we don’t settle at mediation or if they refuse to mediate then we’ll have a hearing before the tribunal.”
Although Kalen declined to say whether the company will enter into mediation he says he’s committed to rectifying the situation.
“If somebody’s been offended in my restaurant, I take it personally,” says Kalen. “It will be dealt with.”
Kalen adds that as a minority he understands that discrimination isn’t acceptable. “My wife and I are both minorities. I’m proud to say we’re both Jewish and her parents were survivors of the Holocaust. This is a background that would not tolerate any kind of discrimination whatsoever.
“We’re not a big business, we’re a family. Gay, straight, white, black, male, female, I could care less. What I care about is respect.”
Calls to speak with the manager named in the complaint were not returned by press time.