Three Muslim workers at a popular restaurant in Leslieville have been awarded almost $100,000 after a human rights tribunal found they had been forced to eat pork, mocked for speaking Bengali, frequently referred to as sh-t and threatened with replacement by “white” staff.
In an 80-page decision, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario said the owners of Le Papillon on the Park, at Eastern Ave. near Ashbridge’s Bay, “made the workplace intolerable for each of the applicants.”
Judith Keene, vice-chair of the tribunal, said in the decision that the restaurant owners retaliated against the men after they questioned how they were treated, resulting in the loss of their jobs.
In addition to paying the award, Keene ordered the restaurant owners to take human rights training and to prominently post Human Rights Code cards at the entranceway and in the kitchen.
Bart Lackie, the lawyer for Paul and Danielle Bigue, owners of Le Papillon on the Park, said his clients are making a “reconsideration request.” It means asking the tribunal to reconsider the decision.
He declined to comment further.
At the hearing, the Bigues testified in their defence. They said they did not force anyone to taste pork, did not use offensive language and did not threaten to fire their employees.
Danielle Bigue also said she did not mock her former employees.
Abdul Malik, a former employee at the restaurant, said he was very relieved the nightmare was over. “I can move on with my life,” said Malik.
Malik and his two former co-workers, Mohammed Islam and Arif Hossain, approached the tribunal separately in early 2011 soon after they were fired or, in Islam’s case, quit. The case was eventually consolidated and heard earlier this year.
The three employees had worked with Le Papillon for years — Malik since 1995 when he started as a dishwasher — starting when the restaurant was at its Church St. location. Everything was fine but it all changed after a partnership split up and the Bigues opened Le Papillon on the Park in late 2009. Malik was appointed the head chef.
Soon after the new restaurant opened, the relationship between the three men and the owners became increasingly acrimonious, the tribunal heard.
There were several run-ins concerning the tasting of dishes made with pork, which Muslims are forbidden to eat.
Malik told the tribunal that Danielle Bigue called him into her office in July 2010 and asked him, for the second time, to try some pork schnitzel because it was offered on the menu. Malik told her that he couldn’t as it was against his religious beliefs. After she raised her voice and insisted, Malik testified he ate some pork because “he was scared of losing his job.”
He testified that after he ate the pork, he went to the office washroom and vomited. He then washed his face, left the office and went to the changing room and cried. Malik said he could not sleep that night and even months later, he still felt guilty about eating pork.
The Bigues told the tribunal they never asked Malik to taste pork schnitzel and that he did not have access to the office washroom.
There was an incident involving Mohammed Islam, a cook at the restaurant, and pork, too. Islam told the hearing that Danielle Bigue asked him to taste tourtière, which included pork, because it did not have enough flavour. He refused because he was fasting for Ramadan and also because he does not eat pork. He testified that Bigue said “you’re crazy people” and left the kitchen.
In her testimony, Bigue denied she asked him to taste the tourtière or ever used offensive language.
Danielle mocked them by calling out “blah blah” as they spoke in Bengali, the hearing heard.
The tribunal also heard how Bigue, more than once, said she wanted white staff. Islam testified that on one occasion Bigue came into the kitchen when he was speaking in Bengali with a co-worker because he wasn’t fluent in English. Bigue made a remark about “cleaning Bengali sh-t from the kitchen even if I have to close for weeks to hire new staff.”
Danielle admitted she sometimes raised her voice in the kitchen but denied saying anything offensive.
Hossain, another long-time employee, testified that he was refused a day off for Eid in September 2010 and threatened with firing if he didn’t show up for work.
The tribunal also heard that the three workers wrote letters to the Bigues, in September and November 2010, complaining of discrimination but the owners did not investigate the allegations.
The Bigues testified they never received the first letter.
The tribunal accepted that Hossain was fired, as was Malik, and Islam had no choice but to leave.
Kate Sellar, a lawyer with the Human Rights Legal Support Centre who represented the three at the hearing earlier this year, said there are many cases that come up at the tribunal and entail racism. Most involve a subtle form of discrimination, she said.
“In this case, there were allegations of direct discrimination, comments that were made and actions taken that were quite shocking,” she said. “Really shocking.”