A so-called “clean-shave” policy for workers at shelters and congregate settings in Toronto has been modified after some Sikh security guards reportedly lost their jobs for refusing to shave their beards.
An official with the World Sikh Organization (WSO) of Canada confirmed the change to CP24 on Tuesday afternoon.
The City of Toronto shared the news in a release issued around 6 p.m.
“Effective today, the City of Toronto will immediately permit “under-mask beard covers” as a reasonable accommodation option for individuals who maintain facial hair as a tenet of their faith and are required to be present at City sites with protective N95 respirator requirements. This includes contracted security guards at City shelter locations,” they wrote.
The city said this “under-mask beard covering” technique, which is known as the Singh Thattha Method, applies a tight-fitting mask over a beard that covers the chin and cheeks, and ties in a knot at the top of the head. An N95 mask is then worn over the cover. This technique is used by many Sikh people in the medical community and has been found to be highly effective in respirator fit testing, they said.
“This option was proposed by the World Sikh Organization of Canada and the City is grateful for this information. The City also committed to follow-up meetings with the organization,” said City of Toronto, which also organization for “any delay in addressing this issue and ensuring security contractors were offering religious accommodations.”
This change comes after approximately 100 Sikh security guards employed by third parties were either terminated, transferred, or had shifts cancelled due to non-compliance with a city policy that required some employees to be clean shaven in order to be properly fitted for N95 respiratory masks.
“We received a call from Mayor Tory and he confirmed that the security guards could return to their jobs and the City would work with the security contractors to make it possible. He also confirmed the N95 would only be required where there is an outbreak,” Balpreet Singh, WSO’s spokesperson and legal counsel, told CP24 late this afternoon.
“There is only one such site and there, the latex or cloth undercover could be used to cover the beard. This is indeed what we had initially suggested.”
The city policy previously applied to workers in homeless services settings who came into contact with clients suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19, as well as in settings where there was a suspected or declared outbreak of the virus.
Singh had written a letter to Mayor John Tory and members of city council drawing their attention to the possible discriminatory impacts of the policy on June 7.
However, weeks went by without any action being taken.
Following several media reports on Monday, the city did formally order its contractors to comply with its Human Right and Anti-Harassment/Discrimination Policy and make equitable accommodations for their employees with religious exemptions.
Mayor John Tory also told reporters earlier on Tuesday that he would like to see the involved contractors – ASP Security Services, Garda World, and Star Security – apologize.
“(These workers) deserve better than that. … There’s always an accommodation,” he said.
Among those impacted by the interpretation of the policy was Birkawal Singh Anand, who last spring as hired to work security at a local respite centre.
During a July 4 interview with CTV Toronto, he said he recently received an email from his employer, ASP Security Services, telling him to shave his beard or he’d be out of a job.
“Everyone’s freedom of speech and human rights have been protected. For me, if I cannot follow my religion, it is something disgusting, right,” said Anand, who equated shaving his facial hair to “peeling his skin off.”
To make matters worst, Anand said the accommodation offered to him by his employer, ASP Security Services, amounted to both a demotion and a pay cut.
He called the situation both “disturbing and humiliating.”
ASP told CTV Toronto that they tried to find accommodations for the affected workers.
Two other security companies that also have contracts with the city, Garda World and Star Security, have not commented on the matter.
Speaking to CTV Toronto late this afternoon, Anand said Tory called him and apologized for what happened. He said the mayor also promised “everything will be back to normal.”
“That means that he will be re-instating all the Sikh guards to their same positions and same pay rate as well," he said.
In its July 5 news release, the city reiterated that it “abides by all human rights legislation and requires all contractors to also comply with City’s Human Rights and Anti-Harassment/Discrimination Policy (HRAP) and all applicable human rights legislation.”
Any worker whose employment was terminated is expected to be reinstated “immediately” and “appropriately compensated for any financial impact,” they noted.