By Lisa Cameron
on behalf of the Halifax Workers’ Action Centre
A former employee of LaFarge Canada is accusing the company of gender discrimination after years of poor treatment she attributes to her sex.
Cindy Lawrence* was hired in December of 2011 at Lafarge Canada’s Brookfield plant just south of Truro, Nova Scotia. She worked until January of 2019. Just four weeks into her pregnancy, Lawrence’s employment was terminated abruptly and without warning.
The timing of her termination, Lawrence believes, was no coincidence. Reflecting on seven years of employment with LaFarge, she remembers a workplace culture of hostility and disrespect towards women in the form of inequity of benefits, sexual harassment, barriers to professional advancement, and a highly unequal ratio of male to female workers.
Lawrence became aware of the company’s sexist attitude early into her position. “I was hired by LaFarge on a one-year contract,” she says. “My employment came without benefits, job security, or a pension.”
Lawrence indicates that the terms of her employment were consistent with those of her few female colleagues. However, they differed vastly from those of all her male counterparts.
“Every male staff member was hired on a permanent basis, enjoyed health and dental benefits, and paid into a pension that was matched by LaFarge,” she says. “It was clear from the start that men and women were valued differently there.”
As a young, single woman, Lawrence also began to feel targeted by her male superiors. “When I was first hired, my boss would interrupt my work regularly to talk about personal matters on company time,” she says. “He would often take me out to lunch, which was something he didn’t do with my co-workers. I felt it was inappropriate.”
Still new to the company, Lawrence felt obligated to comply. “If I refused to go to chat excessively or go to lunch with him, I worried that my future at LaFarge would be compromised.”
Lawrence notes that her boss’s interest in her was temporary. “When I got engaged, he stopped socializing with me and his demeanor towards me shifted,” she says. “I was no longer his focus.”
Soon after her engagement, another young, single female worker was hired. Lawrence says that she became his next target. “It made me feel like I was employed for the wrong reasons.”
When it came to unwanted male attention at LaFarge, Lawrence’s boss was not her only concern. In 2016, she was sexually harassed by a male co-worker in a manner she describes as relentless.
“Being the primary person responsible for my lab, my personal cell phone number was posted on the wall. This was so that operators could contact me in case there were any issues, questions, or equipment failures in my absence,” Lawrence recalls.
Although her contact information was intended for the professional use of the staff she managed, the lab in which it was posted was accessible to all plant employees.
“A male colleague from another department found my phone number on the wall and started texting me inappropriately,” Lawrence says. “Within a day or so, he point-blank asked me to have an affair with him.”
The employee told Lawrence that he was attracted to her and assured her that neither his wife nor their co-workers would find out about the affair he was proposing.
“His advances were completely unwanted,” Lawrence says. “I asked him to stop texting me immediately.”
Despite Lawrence’s stern rejection, however, the employee continued to proposition her over text. Feeling threatened and insecure at work, she decided to report the harassment to her boss.
“When I told my boss, he laughed in my face,” she says. “He mocked me, and then explained that he wouldn’t do anything to address it.”
Lawrence says that the unwanted advances continued for the next four months. “I told this individual repeatedly to leave me alone, but he continued to text me inappropriately. There were no consequences for his behaviour, and I felt like nobody cared.”
Hostility and bullying
LaFarge’s sexist workplace climate, Lawrence believes, also fostered hostile relationships between the few female employees at the plant. “Women were repeatedly positioned against each other,” says Lawrence. “Without job security, and given the preferential treatment awarded to single women by management, trust was eroded between us.”
Lawrence claims that managers at LaFarge slandered female employees behind their backs regularly. “My direct supervisor actually told me in my interview not to trust one woman working in the lab,” she says. “He told me that he needed my help to get rid of her, and she was eventually fired.”
The workplace culture became so toxic between the female staff that, at one point, Lawrence felt traumatized. “I was repeatedly name-called by a female supervisor, who took a particular dislike to me,” she says. “She would say things like ‘you’re too stupid to do this job properly’. She would also set me up for failure by not assigning me tasks, and then telling my boss I was lazy. It got to the point that I felt physically ill while getting ready for work.”
Lawrence reported the bullying to her manager, but again had no success.
“At first, my boss did nothing to help me,” Lawrence says. Eventually, however, management held a meeting with the two women to resolve the conflict.
“The meeting was a farce,” says Lawrence. “It just gave my co-worker another chance to bully, harass, and insult me, but this time she did it right in front of management’s eyes without repercussion.”
According to Lawrence, this was not the first time an employee at LaFarge’s Brookfield plant was subjected to bullying without intervention or assistance from management. In 2017, a worker reported instances of bullying to Nova Scotia’s Occupational Health and Safety Division, which triggered a company-wide investigation.
“The complaint resulted in mandatory and annual bullying and harassment training for the entire company,” Lawrence recalls. “Still, this remained an issue and victims were not taken seriously.”
Beyond the problem of bullying and harassment at Lafarge, Lawrence believes that female staff were also deprived of professional advancement opportunities that were regularly offered to men.
“I was rejected for a special training session that would have benefited me greatly in my work as quality coordinator,” Lawrence says. “Male workers, on the other hand, were sent on countless trips to better their knowledge and to advance their careers with LaFarge.”
Terminated: “All of those employees were women”
Leading up to her termination, Lawrence says that the unfair treatment worsened. Then, in late 2018, Lawrence told a co-worker of her plans to have a baby. Soon after becoming pregnant, she was fired.
At the end of her workday on January 16, 2019, Lawrence was told to report to her boss’s office to set her targets for the following year. “I had been performing well and was expecting a promotion I had been promised.”
When she arrived at his office, she was greeted by three male managers. “I was fired without any reason or warning given,” Lawrence says. “Without prompting, the men assured me that my termination was not discriminatory. This only raised more suspicion in my mind.”
During the seven years Lawrence worked at LaFarge’s Brookfield plant, she says that a total of six employees were fired. “All of those employees were women.”
On the other hand, Lawrence says that male employees retained their jobs, even after displays of aggression and insubordination. “One guy told his manager to ‘shove-it’ twice and he was hired back three seperate times,” Lawrence says. “Men at LaFarge could do no wrong.”
Pregnant and without income
Lawrence has no doubt that her pregnancy was the reason behind her termination. “I always did well on my performance evaluations and reached my targets every year,” she says. In 2018, right before being fired, Lawrence got the highest bonus she had ever received for good performance. “Obviously the company didn’t have an issue with how I did my job.”
At the time Lawrence left LaFarge, there were only three female employees left of a staff of approximately 65 workers at the Brookfield location. She notes that none of these women held management positions.
Pregnant and without income, Lawrence searched for other employment. Unfortunately, she was unsuccessful. “Nobody wants to hire a pregnant woman,” she says. “Pregnancy is hard to hide from a prospective employer.”
Lawrence debated filing an application with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Tribunal over behavior by LaFarge that she felt was discriminatory. The representative at the tribunal, she said, encouraged her to file the application and assured her that she had grounds to do so. With a baby on the way and no employment income, however, the burden of undertaking legal action felt too daunting.
While firing someone for being pregnant is illegal under Nova Scotia’s human rights legislation, obstacles exist for workers seeking to challenge an unfair termination on these grounds.
“The only legal remedy for non-unionized workers who find themselves in this situation is through the human rights complaint process,” says Katrin MacPhee, labour lawyer and organizer with the Halifax Workers’ Action Centre. “However, the human rights complaint process does not generate quick results for employees. This is especially problematic for people terminated during the course of a pregnancy.”
When a pregnant worker is fired, the impact of an unjust termination can be dangerous. “Pregnant workers are often economically very vulnerable,” says MacPhee. “They need to work enough hours to qualify for EI-supported parental leave, and are justifiably worried that other employers will discriminate against them during the hiring process due to their pregnancy.”
Intimidation and loss of income can deter workers in this situation from taking legal action against a prejudiced employer. Filing an application with the Human Rights Tribunal can be daunting, especially for workers who feel unsupported in this process.
“Unfortunately, the WAC [Halifax Workers’ Action Centre] has encountered a number of workers who were terminated while pregnant, and who feel that they were in fact terminated as a result of their pregnancy,” says MacPhee. The Halifax Workers’ Action Centre (WAC) was founded in 2017 by the Halifax-Dartmouth & District Labour Council and Solidarity Halifax and is currently the only legal-aid clinic in Atlantic Canada that focuses on assisting non-unionized, low-income workers with their workplace problems.
“Often, prior to being terminated, they’ve dealt with other forms of gender discrimination at work as well.”
To curb this practice, MacPhee says that stricter regulation is required, along with harsher punishments for employers. “The likelihood of an employer being caught and punished is low, given the obstacles facing women in this situation,” she says. “Even if they are caught, the punishment isn’t adequately severe. This only emboldens them more.”
The Halifax Workers’ Action Centre exists to support workers in difficult employment situations like Lawrence’s.
“It’s great to know that free legal support and information is available through the WAC for workers who cannot afford lawyers”, says Lawrence.
However, for change to occur, Lawrence believes that workers in Nova Scotia need better protections. “The WAC is playing an important role in helping workers get justice. However, until employees rights improve, these kinds of situations are bound to occur.”
Lawrence hopes that exposing her story will help empower workers facing similar obstacles and may inspire change in a company she feels wronged by.
“LaFarge is a big company, and I know I am not the first employee that has faced discrimination and abuse at their hands,” Lawrence says. “I want them to be held accountable in one way or another.”
*Editor’s note: Name has been changed to protect the identity of the worker