Toronto must review mask policy after Sikh workers fired: advocacy group

The city of Toronto says it has instructed contract security companies to accommodate their employees with religious exemptions after a national Sikh advocacy organization denounced the city government’s “clean shave” policy around N95 masks, which the group says has led to demotions and layoffs. .

In accordance with Toronto’s face covering mandate, which the city last updated on June 22, all staff at homeless shelters and similar congregate settings who come into contact with clients suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 or those working in settings where there is a suspected or declared outbreak of the virus should wear an N95 respirator mask.

These masks, which need a good seal around the nose and mouth, can’t fit properly on people with beards, said Brad Ross, a spokesman for the city of Toronto.

Workers who are unable to comply with this directive due to their creed, religious beliefs, practices or observances have the option of meeting with their supervisor/manager to explore other accommodations.

Balpreet Singh Boparai of the Ottawa-based World Sikh Organization (WSO) Canada said this “unfair and unnecessary” policy has resulted in the dismissal or reassignment of more than 100 contract security guards, as their faith demands. not cut or shave their hair. or beard.

“Such relocations often come with a demotion in both rank and salary. In many cases, individuals who had been hired as supervisors or managers have been demoted to security guards,” WSO said in a July 4 statement.

The group wants the city to review the policy and reinstate the affected workers.

“It has wreaked havoc on the lives of these security guards,” said Boparai, who serves as a spokesperson and legal counsel for WSO.

“They have an impossible situation. … The solution is not to shave, it is to realize that this rule is not necessary.”

Boparai, who last month wrote to Mayor John Tory and all members of the City Council to demand an “urgent resolution” to this problem, said that the vast majority of the time security guards can do their job safely using a medical mask, but said there can be “some very rare situations” where that’s not possible and that’s understandable.

“But kicking out 100+ guards is not the right way to do this,” he said, adding that these workers “served during the height of the COVID pandemic wearing medical masks and were not required to be clean shaven.”

“The new clean shave rules were introduced at a time when visitors to city sites are no longer required to wear masks. The clean shave requirement is also not being enforced for staff and workers at city sites,” WSO said in a statement.

Speaking to CP24 on Monday night, Boparai said he doesn’t want to take the legal route, but his group has the option of taking the city to the Human Rights Court if it doesn’t fix the situation.

“These security guards really feel like they’ve been used and abused, and now they’re being discarded like trash,” Boparai said. “I mean, they worked until the height of the pandemic when their lives were really at risk. And now, there has been no attempt to accommodate them at all.”

Birkawal Singh Anand, who has worked as a contract security officer at a Toronto rest facility since last spring, said he recently received an email from his employer, ASP Security Services, telling him to shave off his beard or he would be out of a job. . .

“If you want to work, starting next week, you’re going to have to be clean shaven,” he told CTV Toronto.

Anand, who said shaving facial hair would be like “taking off your skin”, called the incident “disturbing and humiliating”.

“Freedom of expression and the human rights of all have been protected. For me, if I can’t follow my religion, it’s kind of gross, right,” she said.

To make matters worse, Anand said the accommodation offered by his employer amounted to both a demotion and a pay cut.

ASP Security Services said they tried to find accommodation for the affected workers.

Two other security companies that also have contracts with the city, Garda World and Star Security, did not respond to CTV Toronto’s request for comment on the situation.

Toronto City Hall is seen on Friday, September 1, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

THE CITY WORKING TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM

In a statement issued late Monday, the city said it is “confident” that security guards hired with religious exemptions can be accommodated.

“The city is working directly with the security guard companies contracted by its shelter system to ensure that these accommodations are provided and that no contracted employee is unable to work as a result of public health masking directives,” the statement read. release.

The city added that it has also ordered businesses to bring back any employees who have been laid off.

Security companies that don’t follow its instructions could see their contracts terminated, the city said, noting that it is looking at all legal options.

“The city does not tolerate, ignore or condone discrimination, and is committed to promoting respectful conduct, tolerance and inclusion, always,” the statement read.

“City staff work to ensure policies are inclusive, and policies are routinely evaluated to ensure they respect the rights and freedoms of everyone who works for the city, whether they are full-time or part-time employees.” , or employees of contractors”.

Mayor John Tory said in a separate statement that he asked staff to work with contractors to resolve the issue.

“No city policy allows contractors to ignore or dismiss the religious beliefs of their employees or not accommodate them. Any contracted employee who has not been accommodated because of their religious beliefs must be immediately accommodated by the contractor,” Tory said.

“I hope that city staff will continue to investigate this complaint and make any necessary changes, including legal action, to ensure that Sikh residents and people of all faiths are fully respected.”

In an earlier statement, City of Toronto spokesman Brad Ross said one possible adaptation of the N95 mask is a full-face respirator, “but the City’s Occupational Health and Safety has advised that it is not suitable for that. used by security guards due to hearing and visibility restrictions.

“So just like city staff, contractors must accommodate their employees at another work location if, for religious reasons, they can’t be clean shaven,” he said, noting that the city is in “the process of review the matter and consult with the contractors.

Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh called the policy “discriminatory” in a tweet.

“Many of these same people served us during the height of the COVID pandemic. They deserve to be reinstated immediately,” Singh tweeted.

In March 2020, bearded RCMP Sikh officers were banned from front-line policing duties as the organization required all officers to be equipped with N95 masks. They were allowed to return to duty in October 2020 after the WSO advocated for them.

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