Roughly 100 Sikh security guards were let go due to the City of Toronto’s mask mandate, which requires them to be clean-shaven. The World Sikh Organization (WSO) is now demanding the city change what it calls a “discriminatory” rule.
According to CBC News, the city has been mandating that security guards wear N95 masks while on the job at settings such as homeless shelters since January. The city confirmed that employees working within the Shelter, Support, and Housing Administration (SSHA) department must wear N95 masks at all times and be clean-shaven so that the masks provide effective protection against Covid-19.
For devout Sikhs, leaving their hair uncut is an important part of their faith. In a practice called Kesh, Sikhs allow one’s hair to grow out naturally out of respect for the perfection of God’s creation.
The WSO wants to see the city compensate and rehire the Sikh guards.
“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.”
When notified of the requirement last month, Anand said that he applied for a religious exemption but was told that would mean he would be demoted to a lower position with lower pay.
Many of the guards, who are working towards permanent residency, have had to choose between new jobs that didn’t offer permanent residency, finding a different job, getting laid off or shaving their beards.
When CBC News reached out for comment from GardaWorld, a security contractor, they said all employees who are unable to meet the health and safety requirement set out by the city were offered “other and equivalent opportunities within the organization” until the restriction is lifted.
Balpreet Singh, a lawyer with the WSO, said Toronto’s rule feels particularly discriminatory because the policy has remained while nearly all other pandemic restrictions in Ontario have dropped.
“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.’”
Conservative Leadership Candidate Pierre Poilievre weighed in and called the city’s mask mandate “ridiculous,” adding that the “gatekeepers who made this dumb decision should be held accountable.”
“Having a beard doesn’t prevent someone from safely doing a job as a security guard,” tweeted Poilievre.
“Anyone who lost their job (including Sikh security guards) should be reinstated & compensated for lost pay.”
The City of Toronto said in an email statement that it’s aware of the WSO’s complaint and said all of the workers affected are employed by contractors and not its own corporate security division.
The city says SSHA policy allows for accommodation for employees, but employees of contractors seeking accommodations should have their requests assessed “in accordance with the contractor’s own human rights policies.”
The WSO says it will consider legal action if the city does not change its rules.