On Monday, July 4, the Canadian city of Toronto began rehiring contract security guards previously let go for not shaving their beards. They were told to shave their beards — or lose their jobs — in order to create a tight seal around their faces for an N95 mask.
The rule that forced the workers to shave their beards is in violation of a sacred Sikh tradition. The World Sikh Organization (WSO) spoke up, prompting Toronto city officials to comply with the needs of the guards.
No shave, no job
Toronto is currently working with security contractors connected to its shelter system to ensure that the affected workers can work without being held back by health requirements.
“The City has directed these contractors to accommodate their employees who have requested religious exemptions and to reinstate any employee whose employment was terminated, immediately,” the city said in a news release on Monday.
“As part of its investigation, the city will be looking at its legal options, up to and including terminating the contracts of any contractors found to be in violation of city policy or human rights legislation,” the city said in the news release.
Around 100 Sikh guards have been fired since April due to not adhering to a health requirement that required them to shave their beards to fit their N95 masks for work, the CBC reported.
According to the municipal public health requirement, security guards have to wear N95 masks when performing their duties at homeless shelters to handle COVID-19 outbreaks. As such, to ensure that their masks fit, guards are required to shave their beards.
The WSO called the rule “discriminatory,” stating that the security guards were keeping their facial hair grown for religious reasons and, therefore, cannot wear N95 protective masks.
In Sikh tradition, uncut hair, or “kesh,” is kept as a symbol of respect for God’s creation, as decreed by the Sikh Gurus. As such, the move to force Sikhs to shave their facial hair was seen as an intrusive move by the SIkh guards.
“I feel very humiliated,” Birkawal Singh Anand, a guard for ASP Security told the CBC, “If you ask me to clean shave my beard, it’s like peeling off my skin.”
According to Anand, he applied for a religious exemption upon being notified of the requirement last month. Unfortunately, doing so meant that he would be forced to be demoted to a lower position within ASP Security, along with lower pay.
Anand valued his job as a security guard at Toronto’s respite centers, since the federal government called it a “skilled” job. It also gave him “permanent residency,” something that other jobs could not.
Other guards are trying to get permanent residency as well, but were also forced to find somewhere else to work, or comply with the requirement.
“These security guards served at the height of the pandemic without these rules, when things were at their worst,” Singh said. He lamented the fact that he was being told not to work when the situation surrounding the pandemic has seemingly calmed for the time being.
“But now when, you know, vaccines are very common and things are opening up, they’re being told: ‘No, you can’t serve here because you’ve got a beard.’”
Lawyer Balpreet Singh of the WSO said that the rule is “particularly discriminatory,” adding that it came when most of the other restrictions were lifted in Ontario.
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Toronto answers the call
Following the WSO’s complaint, Toronto has claimed that the workers are under the employment of contractors, not its own corporate security division. It added that it followed “human rights legislation,” hoping that contractors would do the same.
While the city has made it mandatory to clean-shave and wear a N95 mask, they believe that WSO’s complaint refers to certain contractors who do not accommodate their own employees.
“City staff work to ensure policies are inclusive, and policies are assessed routinely to ensure they respect the rights and freedoms of all those who work for the city — be they full-time or part-time employees, or employees of contractors,” the city said in a statement online.
Toronto has granted seven accommodation requests for its employees seeking religious exemptions in shelters and expects contractors to grant the exemptions requested by their own employees.