December 10, 2019

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Few tools to tackle toxicity

Recent stories spark conversation about avenues needed to address workplace harassment

Opinion

When I was 15 years old, I landed my first part-time job. It was a typical sort of gig, even cliché: minimum wage, a fast-food restaurant not too far from my place, a hair net and a bouquet of oil and dough that sank into my clothes, like some cloying perfume that could never be fully washed away.

The boss was a mercurial sort of man, alternately jovial and angry. He could be gregarious, but also duplicitous and sketchy — he once told me to tell a customer that our meat was kosher. (It wasn’t.) He would sometimes lean over my shoulder, hissing in my ear to scrub dishes harder. I learned to keep my eyes lowered.

Sometimes, when business was slow, he would slap a $5 bill on the front counter and make two of us race through the hot kitchen to win it. This, as far as I could tell, was his entertainment — he’d laugh while we scrambled across the floor, trying to steer clear of the metal appliances and dishes and ovens.

Looking back now, it was ludicrously dangerous, an injury waiting to happen. That none did, to my knowledge, is perhaps lucky; still, it shocks me that I risked it. But at the time, being young, I didn’t realize it wasn’t normal — the owner set the tone, and it seemed he must know better than me how work was supposed to go.

So in the end, I stayed at that job until he took me off the schedule, for reasons then and still unknown. As the years passed, I didn’t think about that gig much. It faded into another rite of passage, the terrible first teenage job, and the owner, too, was forgotten — today, I don’t even remember his name.

Still, I thought about that job again last week, as my inbox filled up with stories about workplace mistreatment.

The emails began to roll in not long after my stories were published. The tales they told spanned every sector of Manitoba’s economy, and every type of business — a small store and a big office. A government agency and a local non-profit. All the places that Manitobans may find themselves in search of a living wage.

The emails began to roll in not long after my stories were published. The tales they told spanned every sector of Manitoba’s economy, and every type of business — a small store and a big office. A government agency and a local non-profit. All the places that Manitobans may find themselves in search of a living wage.

In the emails, readers told me about abuse they had suffered at work. They told me about harassment they’d faced from colleagues or bosses. They told me stories of mistreatment that spilled into their private lives, and about years spent searching for remedies, until they finally reached the end of the line.

They wrote about fear and frustration. They wrote about how their mental health suffered during the ordeal, and sometimes their family life, too. Most of all, they told me about the isolation of never quite knowing where to turn.

What was clear — last week, after the Free Press reported allegations of harassment and psychological abuse at an Osborne Village pet spa now linked to a Law Society of Manitoba investigation, many Manitoba workers read the stories and saw their own trauma reflected in them, too.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Christina Hajjar (from left), Amanda Murdock and Kelsey Wade spoke up about their negative workplace experiences at Stella’s. For most workers, there are few avenues to address a toxic workplace.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Christina Hajjar (from left), Amanda Murdock and Kelsey Wade spoke up about their negative workplace experiences at Stella’s. For most workers, there are few avenues to address a toxic workplace.

Journalists are accustomed to this effect, the way that breaking news draws out fresh waves of similar stories. Last year, when hundreds of past and present Stella’s employees stood up to share their experiences on social media, a slew of similar reports at different businesses flooded into reporters’ inboxes.

There is not always much the media can do to help. The standards journalists must meet to justify putting these types of allegations on the public record can be a high barrier to overcome, as are our standards of verification; no matter how dogged we are to uncover a story, we lack any sort of true investigative authority.

So the stories that did grip local headlines in the past year were put there, in part, by unusual circumstances. Stella’s workers made their experiences public, and the sheer volume of reports drove the ensuing conversation; as for the Osborne Village pet spa, well, not every business gets tied up in a significant Law Society investigation.

But those two stories, along with the wave of reader emails they inspired, point to a bigger question. What does it mean that, for many Manitoba workers, their last — or even only — hope of finding accountability is via the media?

It shouldn’t have to be like this, because workplace health truly matters. For most of us, work will be a nearly lifelong constant, nestled right next to family in our order of priorities.

It shouldn’t have to be like this, because workplace health truly matters. For most of us, work will be a nearly lifelong constant, nestled right next to family in our order of priorities. It typically takes up roughly a third of our adult waking hours, or more; what happens at work has incredible power to affect our lives as a whole.

And work doesn’t have to be fun, but it should be at least as safe as possible, on both physical and mental-health levels. Manitoba law recognizes this, including harassment in the same Workplace Health and Safety Act that enshrines employees’ rights to, for instance, refuse physically dangerous work.

Yet the fact is that, in Manitoba, there are an unknown but — judging by my email inbox — not insignificant number of people who are suffering at work because of mistreatment by colleagues and bosses. Many don’t know where to go for help — especially if, like most workers in the province, they lack a union as a clear point of contact.

Meanwhile, navigating provincial websites for guidance on how to report workplace harassment can be like finding one’s way through a maze. If one does report, the typical remedies are non-punitive, focused on working with employers to reach an agreement; but how will that help, if the source of harassment is the boss?

And the barriers to reporting in the first place can be steep. Some workers don’t have a solid grasp on their rights or much experience of healthy workplace norms; youth and newcomers to Canada may be especially vulnerable in this regard, unsure of where the line falls between standard treatment and harassment.

And the power differential between workers and employers is often all too stark. In most cases, a person’s employer is wealthier than they are, and better connected. If a boss can afford a lawyer, but a worker is already struggling to pay the bills, the fear of a legal process can be an incredibly effective silencer.

If there is no other recourse, quitting a toxic workplace may seem the simple answer. But jobs are not always easy to come by, and the rent still needs to be paid.

If there is no other recourse, quitting a toxic workplace may seem the simple answer. But jobs are not always easy to come by, and the rent still needs to be paid. That people stay in jobs where they are being mistreated is entirely too understandable; that there is so little support to help them is a disgrace.

What can be done to fix it? That’s a much larger discussion. At the very least, the province could improve its online communication about workplace harassment and avenues to address it, so that workers searching for help can find clear and easy-to-understand information to empower their decisions.

Above all, the recent spate of stories alleging abuse of staff ought to have us launching a renewed conversation about how to make Manitoba workplaces safer from all forms of harm. That so many feel like their only hope for action lies in the media is a hidden tragedy; for the sake of our province, we can do better.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Read full biography

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