More than 100 Sikh security guards in Toronto have lost their jobs or been demoted after refusing to cut their beards in order to wear face masks, highlighting a city policy that critics say is discriminatory and “humiliating”.
Under current Toronto rules, staff at homeless shelters and other gathering places must wear an N95 respirator when exposed to people with Covid-19 or during suspected outbreaks.
As part of the policy, staff must be “clean shaven” to ensure masks are appropriate for the property.
But for Sikh workers, whose facial hair is a key expression of their faith, the rules have placed them in a seemingly impossible situation.
“I feel very humbled,” Birkawal Singh Anand told CBC News. “If you ask me to shave my beard close, it’s like peeling my skin.”
Most of the security personnel affected by the policy are hired under municipal contracts with third-party companies.
But Anand, who works for ASP Security, says that after applying for housing, he and more than 100 other guards were only given the option of moving to lower-paying roles – or being fired.
The World Sikh Organization (WSO) calls the current policy “completely unreasonable” – pointing out that most mandates across the city have been dropped – and called on officials to quickly address the situation.
“Sikh police officers and other frontline health care workers have served throughout the pandemic without having to compromise their faith,” WSO President Tejinder Singh Sidhu said in a statement. “There is no reason why Sikh security guards in the city of Toronto cannot be accommodated according to law.”
GardaWorld, one of the companies with a city contract, said in a statement that employees “have been offered other equivalent opportunities” until the rules are changed. Star Security and ASP Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The WSO says it contacted city officials in June after receiving a wave of complaints from workers.
On Monday, the mayor of Toronto blamed third-party companies for failing to accommodate workers while enforcing a city policy.
“I have asked city staff to work with all contractors involved to immediately resolve this issue and to be absolutely clear that we respect people’s human rights, including freedom of religion, and expect all contractors to do the same and properly accommodate employees,” Toronto Mayor John Tory, said in a press release. “There is no municipal policy that allows contractors to ignore or reject the religious beliefs of their employees or not accommodate them.”
He called on all companies to rehire laid-off workers. The city also said it would consider terminating contracts of companies “found in violation of city policy or human rights law.”