A Delta lumber mill worker’s complaint against Interfor alleging discrimination based on religion and disability will be heard by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.
The tribunal rejected lumber giant Interfor’s application to have the complaint lodged by a former Sikh employee at Delta’s Acorn Mill dismissed.
Mander Sohal filed his complaint against Interfor Corporation, Acorn Mill, Chad Eisner and Albert Lum, claiming he was subjected to discrimination based on religion and physical disability before being fired from his job.
The respondents deny any discriminating took place and applied unsuccessfully to have the complaint dismissed on the basis that it was dealt with in another proceeding or had been filed after the deadline to do so. But tribunal member Kathleen Smith decided Sohal’s complaint will instead “proceed to a hearing,” finding “it is in the public interest” to do so.
Sohal made national headlines in 2008 when he filed a human rights complaint against Interfor challenging a policy it implemented in 2007 requiring all employees to wear a hardhat.
In that case Sohal, who wears a turban, also alleged religious discrimination and both parties settled with him being re-assigned a job in which he didn’t need to wear a hardhat. His new job was in the receiver/utility department, receiving parts, checking orders, delivering parts, operating a forklift and cleaning up.
Interfor operates 18 sawmills in North America and Sohal, represented by United Steelworkers Union local 2009, worked for it at Acorn for 27 years,
Smith heard Sohal’s employment in his new position was “incident-free” before September 2013, when he received a disciplinary letter for refusing to perform “street-sweeping” duties as ordered by Lum, his supervisor at the time. Eisner managed the Acorn Mill.
Sohal considered these duties demeaning and outside of the settlement agreement. He told the tribunal that he tried to grieve the discipline but his union refused to advance his cause. After that, he claimed, the company began to increase his clean-up duties to the point where this became the lion’s share of his job.
On July 6, 2015 Sohal injured his back at work and received WorkSafeBC wage replacement benefits from July 6 to Aug. 14, 2015. He claimed Lum accused him of lying and Interfor took issue with the legitimacy of his injury claim. He says when he returned to work his job was further modified to “demeaning cleaning tasks” that were not part of the settlement agreement, and “not medically appropriate” given his workplace injury. He refused to agree to the new tasks and was sent home until he was deemed medically fit to do them. He was later suspended to five days for refusing to abide by his new tasks and ended up taking stress leave.
Sohal claims that when he returned to work after stress leave Interfor refused to accept his medical information and as a result he remained on unpaid leave. That November, Interfor requested that Sohal have his doctor complete a medical questionnaire and when it wasn’t provided decided Sohal was absent without leave and fired him on Dec. 9, 2015. When Sohal told his doctor what happened, the doctor immediately faxed the form to Interfor but his employer nevertheless maintained it had just cause.
Sohal then filed his latest complaint with the tribunal on May 27, 2016, alleging his termination was motivated by his medical condition and adherence to his religious beliefs. His union grieved the firing and the tribunal deferred his human rights complaint until the grievance had run its course. His termination was rescinded and substituted with a six-month suspension.
Sohal says that when he was reinstated, Interfor demanded a medical certificate, declared the 2008 agreement null and had him cleaning windows, sweeping walkways and parking lots, picking up garbage, pulling weeds and trimming shrubs. When he refused to comply with his new role, he was deemed absent without leave and was fired a second time, on March 22, 2017. He grieved this and his human rights complaint was deferred again, pending a second arbitration but the union decided not to proceed and he ended up unsuccessfully filing a fair representation complaint against the union with the Labour Relations Board.
“In summary, Mr. Sohal alleges that Interfor, including Mr. Eisner and Mr. Lum, embarked on a campaign to terminate his employment because of difficulties it had with the 2008 settlement agreement that created a position where he could work without the use of a hardhat because of his religious beliefs,” Smith noted in her Sept. 12 reasons for decision.
She also noted the respondents, conversely, maintain it was Sohal’s “conduct, including insubordination, that put him on a disciplinary path leading to termination of his employment.” They claimed he refused to wear safety glasses and despite reporting a back injury was seen riding away from the mill “without any apparent difficulty.”
“In summary,” Smith said, “the respondents say that Interfor accommodated Mr. Sohal since 2008 and there has been no discrimination. However, because Mr. Sohal repeatedly refused to follow the direction of management, his employment entered a disciplinary path. In the respondents’ view, Mr. Sohal demonstrated that he ‘resents management, has falsely and repeatedly accused his supervisors of harassment, avoids contact with Interfor when it is convenient for him, lies about his injuries and any resulting limitations, and is frequently insubordinate.”
None of the claimant’s or respondents’ claims have yet been proven or dis-proven in a hearing before the tribunal. A date for the hearing has not yet been scheduled.