Complaint was also launched against the university with Quebec Labour Board
Rose Tandel was a student and model personal trainer with Concordia University’s Le Gym when in May 2013 she refused her boss’ request to ask a Muslim colleague to stop praying. Tandel says her colleague wasn’t in a public space and wasn’t drawing attention but was told praying was against the Code of Conduct. Since then, she alleges a systematic attempt by the university and her boss to discredit her and ignore her complaints, causing her to quit and initiate a $60,000 lawsuit for defamation.
Now Montreal’s Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR) has joined her legal counsel before the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission.
CRARR is a civil rights organization dealing primarily but not exclusively with discrimination based on race. They’ve previously defended Concordia students before the Human Rights Commission and work closely with the Concordia Student Union (CSU) Legal Information Clinic.
“We got the official mandate right after the holidays from Ms. Tandel,” said CRARR Executive Director Fo Niemi, after previous attempts at mediation by the Commission des normes du travail du Québec failed.
Niemi says it will be his organization’s job to see whether Tandel had been the victim of discrimination throughout the event.
“This won’t be based necessarily on her race or religion or ethnicity, but that she spoke against her manager’s attitude on a Muslim colleague’s prayer,” Niemi said.
“Because she objected to discrimination of her Muslim colleague’s religion, she herself became a target of discrimination,” said Niemi. “We intend to file a complaint very soon with the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission.” He says the focus will not be on the initial incident, but the way it was subsequently handled by the university.
“We don’t know exactly what has happened with the whole issue of Muslim prayers in the workplace. We don’t know what Concordia has done on that issue. That’s the first question we want to ask. And secondly we’re going to ask: what happened to Ms. Tandel when she went to seek help with office of rights and responsibilities and human resource department. The situation turned around to make her into a problem employee.”
Tandel had been an employee with the gym for five years with a spotless record free of any issues prior to the fallout.
Niemi said based on his information about the case and his organization’s track record, things look good for a positive outcome.
“The advantage of a complaint before the human rights commission is that we can ask for non-monetary remedies. In other words, requiring Concordia to correct its policies in these situations or adopt new policies so this does not happen again.” Niemi said another employee could potentially join the complaint, but would not say at the moment if it was the original Muslim employee implicated. “We’re looking at whether this is an isolated incident, or whether this has taken place before or is taking place now.”
“This ordeal has been very hard on her both financially and psychologically,” said Niemi.
Tandel says her experiences took a turn for the worse when she made the decision to challenge what she calls false assertions made by her manager and the administration allegedly shielding him.
“They [HR] made me believe they had set up a meeting to discuss the issue,” she said. “In fact I walked into a disciplinary hearing without being prepared.”
And it wasn’t just one disciplinary hearing but a total of four, including the first two when she discovered her boss had opened up a case with HR against her on accusations of fraud and theft stemming from money and items missing in the workplace and which she successfully defended herself against. She alleges he later spread rumors with the gym staff over her giving a client’s a free membership card Tandel says he himself gave her, in addition to other accusations.
Niemi said these unexpected disciplinary hearings were a clear violation of procedure, and despite proving her innocence on those charges she was suspended on other charges of circumventing procedure to help a friend and insubordination. When Tandel continued seeking an explanation, HR accused her of poisoning the workplace.
Tandel says her superior has a history of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, with previous occurrences of what she considers racist, sexist, and insensitive comments. He called her Muslim co-worker’s praying an unwelcome ‘sermon’ that brought Islam into the work environment. She also alleges he has been shuffled around previously because of his attitude and has a track record of accusing others of theft.
“They told me they could call a disciplinary hearing whenever they wanted,” she said. This caused an additional 3-week suspension on charges she wasn’t doing her work properly, despite a previous promotion and pay raise.
Most importantly, she says the subject of his comments on Muslims was never approached or dealt with in any way by the investigation.
“Most of them don’t speak French and they’re international students, and this is the only place they can work at,” she said, regarding the vulnerability of some of her co-workers and their hesitancy in corroborating her story.
At one point her Muslim co-worker finally made a grievance.
“We were made to believe they would resolve both files. Instead they signed a contract with [the Muslim co-worker] and tied his hands.” She said this binding by non-disclosure was deliberate. Eventually, she said her co-worker was reposted to the Loyola campus.
“The normalcy of my work changed. I couldn’t communicate with my managers so I couldn’t stay informed and wouldn’t be available for whatever I was suppose to be available for, and then they would charge me with disciplinary hearings.”
At around the same time, she was sent an invoice for approximately $4,500 she owed over incorrectly billed overtime pay, save that the overtime pay was given to all her fellow coworkers and only she, to her knowledge, was required to pay it.
Not long afterwards, they received a phone call from Concordia’s HR department for an ‘off-the-books’ meeting where they offered to drop the overtime bill if she agreed to never set foot in the gym and not speak about her experiences with the public or her clients. When she began her defamation lawsuit, the invoices ceased.
“They comfortably buried the issues and focused on me being a thief,” she said.
Tandel says her superior was approached with sensitivity training by an interim director at the time, but that it never went anywhere.
The labour board will hear the case on Feb. 16, at least the third time Concordia has pushed back the date. Her case was originally set to be heard in November 2014.
Tandel believes these interruptions are delaying tactics by the university to exhaust her financially. Despite being given a lawyer by the labour board.
“I’m asking for reinstatement, for wages lost, for damages [due to] psychological harassment, for clearance of my employee file.”
The court date will last two to three days and will finally look over the evidence from both sides.
When she complained about the conduct of the HR director, she received a reply by the Ordre des conseillers en ressources humaines saying that, in his capacities, the HR director had the ‘mandate to support the managers in their decisions.’
“Out of all the other organizations outside of the labour board and my personal lawyer, [CRARR] seems to really care. I really think they’ll work to resolve the issue with me.”
The CSU has an agreement with CRARR and will partially pay for their services.
The Concordian was unable to reach Concordia for comment by press time.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated sometimes dropped the last R in CRARR. This has been fixed. Also, CRARR is representing Ms. Tandel before the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission, not the Canadian Human rights tribunal/Quebec Student Rights and Youth Rights Commission. The Concordian apologizes for the error.
CLARIFICATION: Ms. Tandel wished to clarify by saying the first two disciplinary hearings were over falsely accusations on money and items missing in the workplace, and the membership card issue was a separate issue solely to do with rumours she alleges he spread to the staff. This has been added.