The World Health Organization has declared a global emergency for the spread of the Coronavirus from Wuhan, China and the fear of Coronavirus has increased the racist sentiment against Chinese nationals. Reports about the virus can be alarming. However, it’s important not to let these fears overwhelm standards of appropriate workplace conduct towards co-workers from different parts of the world. Ontario’s Human Rights Code protects against workplace discrimination on the basis of race, ancestry, place of origin, color, ethnic origin, and citizenship, among other grounds. A misplaced concern for one’s health will not excuse discriminatory conduct. Adverse treatment of an employee on the basis of a protected ground can constitute discrimination. The offender does not have to hold a deliberate intention or motivation to discriminate in order to offend the Human Rights Code’s protections. Discriminatory conduct often arises because of stereotyping developed from subtle, even unconscious beliefs, biases, and prejudices. Fears for one’s health or the fear of Coronavirus, in this case, may stoke underlying prejudices and motivate inappropriate, differential treatment of co-workers. “I didn’t mean to offend,” will not excuse otherwise discriminatory conduct. It’s also not necessary for the prohibited grounds of discrimination to be the sole or the major factor leading to the discriminatory conduct. There can be a violation even when the prohibited ground was only one factor leading to discriminatory conduct among other innocent factors. Discriminatory conduct is often subtle and can be proven by circumstantial evidence and inference. During the 2003 SARS crisis, the Ontario Human Rights Commission emphasized the importance of not using the SARS virus as an excuse to stigmatize any group of people, noting that discriminatory action because of an association with the virus, “perceived or otherwise,” is prohibited by the Code. Author: Ben Hahn

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