PHOTO: Birkawal Singh Anand, a 21-year-old originally from India who works with ASP Security as a security guard, says he thought he'd be free to practise his religion in Canada. Instead, he says he was forced to choose between shaving his beard or continuing his job. (Submitted by the World Sikh Organization)
The directive comes after a complaint by the World Sikh Organization (WSO) that security guard contractors for the city were not accommodating employees who have facial hair for religious reasons, and thus failed the fit tests required for wearing N95 masks.
Security guards are required to wear N95 masks when they are working at city homeless shelters fighting COVID-19 outbreaks, according to a public health requirement.
“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 it has contracts with many large security guard organizations and employees who have facial hair for religious reasons can be accommodated in other city settings, including shelters that are not in outbreak. However, one security contractor has stated it had no comparable positions within the city to place the employees who were affected.
According to the city, it is working with security companies contracted to its shelter system to ensure these accommodations are provided and that no contract employee will be unable to work due to public health requirements.
Earlier on Monday, the WSO demanded that the city change what it called a “discriminatory” rule included in its contracts that require security guards in some settings to be clean-shaven.
The organization called on the city to compensate and order its contractors to reinstate about 100 bearded Sikh guards lost their jobs due to the requirement.
The WSO said the public health requirement has been in place at congregate settings since January and the security guards work for contractors such as GardaWorld, ASP Security and Star World.
The city confirmed that employees and contractors working with its Shelter, Support and Housing Administration (SSHA) department must wear a N95 mask and must be clean-shaven. It said the masks provide effective protection against COVID-19 transmission.
But the city said the WSO’s complaint stems from contractors failing to accommodate their own employees.
Sikh security guards have been struggling with the rule.
“I feel very humiliated,” said Birkawal Singh Anand, who works for ASP Security.
“If you ask me to clean shave my beard, it’s like peeling off my skin.”
Anand said he applied for a religious accommodation when he was notified of the requirement last month, but was told that would mean being relegated to a lower position with the company with lower pay.
He said his previous position working as a security guard at city respite centres was recognized as a “skilled” job by the federal government and helped him work toward permanent residency. The new jobs offered, however, do not.
He said he and other guards — many who are also working toward permanent residency — have to choose between those new jobs, finding a different job, getting laid off, or shaving their beards.
CBC News has reached out to the named security firms with questions about how they are implementing the city policy.
According to an email statement from ASP Security, the company is looking for more clarification from the city before it can recall six employees who declined to accept “comparable alternative positions” at non-city sites and were laid off as a result.
The company says all 13 affected guards were offered alternative positions at higher rates of pay, which wouldn’t impact any employee’s immigration status. Three workers accepted them, while four abided by the rule, the firm said.
“The city’s clean-shaven policy has put our company in a difficult situation with few good options,” said Debbie Ciccotelli, ASP vice president of strategic initiatives, in an email statement.
“We simply cannot offer our employees comparable positions with the city because we do not have any available.”
The company states that each employee could return to their job if the requirement was removed. But in the meantime, it says it will reach out to the city to find a solution.
GardaWorld, in an email to CBC News, said that all employees who were unable to meet this health and safety requirement set out by the city were offered “other and equivalent opportunities within the organization” until the measure is lifted.
For Sikh devotees, leaving hair uncut is an important tenet of their faith, the WSO said.
Balpreet Singh, a lawyer with the organization, said Toronto’s rule feels particularly discriminatory because this policy is being brought in while almost all other pandemic restrictions have been dropped in Ontario — including most mask mandates.
“These security guards served at the height of the pandemic without these rules, when things were at their worst,” Singh said.
“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.'”
Singh said he’s repeatedly contacted the city and council members. He said he sent an official letter to the city on June 7 to “work with its security contractors to find a solution.”
The city is it investigating the complaint by the WSO and said all of the workers affected are employed by contractors and not its own corporate security division.
“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 the release.
The city added it abides by human rights legislation and it expects its contractors to abide by its human rights and anti-harassment/discrimination policy as well as human rights legislation.
It said it has granted seven accommodation requests to its own employees who have sought religious exemptions in shelter settings and expects such accommodations, if requested by contract employees, to also be granted by contractors to those employees.
Earlier, the WSO’s Singh said his organization has attempted to work with contractors and contact the city in recent months to bring in alternative options to keep Sikh guards on the job and keep them healthy, but those efforts have been met with “nothing more than platitudes.”
Singh said his organization will consider legal action if there’s no change.
“This is clearly a violation of human rights protections in Ontario.”
Vanessa Balintec is a reporter for CBC Toronto who likes writing stories about labour, equity and community. She previously worked for stations in New Brunswick and Kitchener-Waterloo. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @vanessabalintec.