Unionized Employees, Human Rights Complaints

Can Unionized Employees Start Human Rights Complaints?

Navigating a complaint against your workplace while in a union can be tricky. If you’re unionized, issues with your workplace must be dealt with through the union. This can be a great method if your union is organized, reliable, and quick to deal with any issue that arises. However, there are instances where you might have issues with your union, or where you may need resources your union doesn’t have.


This can include human rights concerns at work, since they must be filed through the Ontario Human Rights Commission rather than through the union, like other complaints.


This article will give you an overview of what a human rights complaint might look like, why it’s different from other complaints about a unionized worker, and how you could go about filing a complaint.


Why is filing a complaint as a unionized employee different?


Most employees in Ontario receive their rights through the Employment Standards Act (ESA). The ESA sets the standards of employment in Ontario and ensures that employers are complying with the law. If a non-unionized employee has a complaint against their employer, they can file a complaint with the Ministry of Labour to make their employers comply. Similarly, employees who experience a human rights violation can file an application through the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario to have their issue addressed.


For unionized employees, the process looks a bit different. Rather than relying on the ESA exclusively, unions will usually have a contract with their employer that determines employee rights. 


In most cases, if you are a unionized employee with a complaint against your employer, you must use your union to file a grievance. Your union should address the concern that way.


However, human rights complaints are treated differently. As a unionized employee, you can file an application through the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario like a non-unionized employee would.


What is a human rights complaint?


A human rights complaint is a complaint based on one of the protected grounds in Ontario. These grounds are a list of traits that cannot be used to discriminate against someone in a protected social area. You can find out more about them in our article, “What Are Protected Grounds In Ontario?”


Since employment is a protected social area in Ontario, you cannot be discriminated against on a protected ground while at work. This means if you have experienced discrimination on a protected ground at work, you may be able to file an application through the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario


Discrimination based on a protected ground may look like your employer refusing to promote you based on your race or status as a pregnant person; someone discriminating against you in the workplace based on your religion; and more. 


What do I do if I am a unionized employee and experience discrimination based on a protected ground?


If you experience discrimination based on a protected ground in Ontario at your workplace, there are several steps that you can take as a unionized employee.


Before going to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO), you can file a grievance with your union to see if that addresses the issue. Even though you can file a claim immediately, it may be beneficial to see if your union can solve the issue, as filing a claim may be a lengthy and expensive process.


If the issue is not cleared up by filing a grievance, speak to an employment lawyer about whether it is a good idea to file an application through the HRTO. If a lawyer believes it is a good idea for you to pursue your claim, they will be able to explain the process of filing an application to you, along with your next steps.


In some cases, your human rights complaint may be against your union directly. Maybe your union has not responded to your grievance or is otherwise discriminating against you based on one of the protected grounds. If so, you should immediately seek help from an employment and human rights lawyer. A lawyer can help you with the next steps of filing your human rights claim and get you the best outcome.




A human rights complaint is a complaint that someone can make because they have been discriminated against based on one of Ontario’s protected grounds in one of Ontario’s protected social areas. Since employment is area where the Human Rights Code applies in Ontario, human rights complaints often come from workers. 


Union workers will usually file any complaints that they have about their workplace through their union, but in the case of human rights complaints, workers can send an application directly to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. If you believe that you have experienced human rights abuse at work, whether you are unionized or not, reach out to a qualified employment lawyer at Achkar Law for help figuring out your next steps. 


Contact Us


If you are an unionized employee or an employer with more questions about human rights complaints or unions, our team of experienced lawyers at Achkar Law is here to help. Contact us by phone toll-free at 1 (800) 771-7882 or email us at [email protected], and we will be happy to assist. 


If you are a small or medium-sized company looking for full-service support with a same-day response, visit our Chief Legal Officer Program page for our strategic solutions.