November 18, 2008 - A Sikh woman who suffered racial, religious and sexual harassment on the job has obtained justice by standing up to her employer. In a settlement agreement, National Wholesale Liquidators (NWL), Mrs. Sukhbir Kaur's former employer, agreed to make changes to their employment policies and pay money damages to nine victims of harassment, including Mrs. Kaur.
The settlement sends a strong message to private employers that discrimination against Sikhs is illegal and will be harshly punished.
Harassed On Account of Her Faith
Mrs. Kaur's lawsuit alleged that in 2004 an NWL store manager harassed Mrs. Kaur because she was a Sikh, a woman, and Indian. The manager told her to remove her turban because she "would appear sexier without it." When she refused the manager's repeated advances, he told her that she was not permitted to use the bathroom and would have to wear a diaper to work. NWL failed to take appropriate action to address and correct the harassment, even after Mrs. Kaur complained. Instead, she was fired.
Mrs. Kaur's matter was first brought to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) attention in July 2005, when the Sikh Coalition filed a charge of discrimination on her behalf with the agency. The EEOC subsequently conducted an investigation and found that many South Asian workers at NWL's Long Island City store in Queens, NY were being harassed. They endured constant taunts about their national origin and religion, such as "All Indians are nasty," "Sikhs are thieves,"or "I'm tired of seeing old Indian faces all the time."
The Sikh Coalition Takes On the Case
Mrs. Kaur and the EEOC attempted to reach a voluntary settlement with NWL once the charges were filed. When these efforts failed, the EEOC and the Sikh Coalition both filed lawsuits in 2007. Mrs. Kaur was co-represented by the Sikh Coalition and attorney Ravinder Singh Bhalla.
On October 23, 2008, NWL settled the case with a consent decree filed in court. Under the agreement, NWL must do two things:
- Provide monetary damages of $255,000 to the nine victims of harassment, including Mrs. Kaur;
- Make changes to its workplace and policies that would rid the company of discrimination. These changes include adoption of an anti-discrimination policy and complaint procedure approved by the EEOC, workplace posters about discrimination, and anti-discrimination training.
The EEOC will monitor NWL's obligations under the consent decree for three years.
"[T]he EEOC hopes this settlement encourages employers to take steps to educate their managers and employees: harassing employees based on national origin, sex or religion is unacceptable and will not be tolerated," said Margaret A.Malloy, the agency's lead attorney on the case.
A Real Hero
The Sikh Coalition congratulates Mrs. Kaur on the resolution of the lawsuit and commends her for standing up for her rights. "Despite being subject to such degrading, discriminatory treatment, Sukhbir Kaur fought back. Because of her courage, NWL is a better workplace for all of its employees. I hope that her story will inspire others to stand up when their rights are violated. And, I hope it equally serves as a warning to employers who tolerate discrimination in their workplace," said Harsimran Kaur, Legal Director of the Sikh Coalition.
The Sikh Coalition would like to thank attorney Ravinder Singh Bhalla and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, particularly attorney Margaret A. Malloy, for their tireless work on the case.
[Update: As some of you may know, last week NWL filed for bankruptcy. The effect of the bankruptcy on the monetary aspect of the settlement is as yet unclear. However, the provisions for policy changes that correct the workplace discrimination remain in effect.]