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Shave or lose your job: More than 100 Sikh security guards lose work at City of Toronto sites over ‘clean-shaven’ mandate


Shave or lose your job: More than 100 Sikh security guards lose work at City of Toronto sites over ‘clean-shaven’ mandate

The City of Toronto is directing security companies who staff some city facilities to stop laying off Sikh security guards for not shaving their beards.

This comes after over 100 local Sikh security guards had been removed from their jobs since April, according to the World Sikh Organization (WSO).

The City of Toronto mandates that security guards working at city shelter and respite sites must be clean-shaven, in order to be able to wear a tight-fitting N95 mask in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak. City staff had been inspecting work sites and deducting billable hours from contracted security companies for having employees who were not clean shaven.

To security guard Birkawal Singh Anand, being asked to shave his beard is akin to asking a non-Sikh to “peel off their skin.”

So, when forced to choose last month between keeping his beard or keeping his job working at a City of Toronto respite site, there was no need to deliberate.

“I told them, I belong to the Sikh community, shaving is not an option for me,” Anand said.

In an email to the Star, City of Toronto spokesperson Erin Whitton said the guards who lost their jobs at city sites were contractors, not the city’s own corporate security staff.

The city’s Shelter, Support and Housing Administration (SSHA) division has a policy that anyone who may have to use an N95 mask must be clean-shaven for fit-testing, Whitton said. This is consistent with the City’s respirator protection policy, she said.

Whitton said the city is “reviewing the complaint certain contractors failed to accommodate their own employees.”

In a press release Monday night, the City said it has “directed these contractors to accommodate their employees who have requested religious exemptions and to reinstate any employee whose employment was terminated, immediately.”

This comes after a month of correspondence from the WSO to the City about the issue.

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

A March COVID-19 info sheet for SSHA staff reads, “employees are required to be clean-shaven for a (mask) fit test.”

According to the WSO, this rule started being enforced on contracted security guards in April. Since then, some guards have been terminated outright, others have been offered reassignments tantamount to demotions, both in terms of job title and pay, the WSO said.

Both the COVID info sheet and the city’s accommodation policy state that religious accommodations can be made for employees unable to shave, to be determined by the employee’s supervisor — the contractors, in the case of the Sikh guards.

Accommodations can involve the employee purchasing equipment, modifying some of the duties or hours of the job, or reassigning the employee.

Anand said he offered to wear a kind of mask that covered his whole beard, but was told that wasn’t an option. “They said, ‘If you want to work here, you have to be shaved,’” he said.

He added: “I’ve been working for security companies the whole pandemic and I’ve never had this problem.”

Anand’s employer, ASP Security, instead chose to offer him reassignment.

In a termination note seen by the Star, ASP wrote that while Anand’s accommodation request had been approved, “being clean-shaven is a mandatory requirement from the client,” in this case the City of Toronto.

As a result, Anand was removed from his schedule at the respite site and placed on “formal lay off.”


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“At the same time, we are happy to inform you that we have open job (sic) opportunity in Aviation Security at Pearson International Airport,” the note read.

The position: “Mask Enforcement Officer.”

ASP added that Anand’s old job would be available for him again, “when the requirement from the client is removed.”

Anand worked two security jobs before being laid off. The job he has left isn’t a city contract — so he is under no pressure to cut off his beard there — but he has lost half his income, and says he is under significant financial constraint.

ASP did not respond to the Star’s request for comment.

An internal email sent by contractor Star World Security to employees and obtained by the Star describes city corporate security conducting site visits and penalizing Star World for having unshaven employees.

“In 1 day, we were deducted 198 billable hours because security guards were showing up to work without being clean shaven,” the email said. “Effective immediately, if you show up to work not clean shaven, you will be sent home immediately without pay.”

It continues: “Unfortunately this directive is a mandatory requirement to work with the City of Toronto in the Shelter and Respite locations as it is dealing with the vulnerable population. The reasoning behind being clean shaven at all times is in case there is an outbreak declared at a location, the guards and staff can immediately transition to the N95 masks with an affective (sic) appropriate seal.”

Star World also did not respond to the Star’s requests for comment.

The city confirmed corporate security staff have conducted inspections to document “compliance concerns.” Whitton added: “Contractors then have a duty to accommodate their employees in accordance with their own human rights policies.”

Balpreet Singh Boparai, legal counsel for the WSO, said it is clear the city is the one “cracking down” on bearded security guards.

“This means financial losses for the contractors, who are solving the problem by removing Sikhs from their jobs,” Boparai said.

The city has been told this is a problem “for almost a month and they haven’t shown any inclination to fix it,” he said.

In a June 8 letter to Mayor John Tory, Boparai wrote: “It is patently unfair and ludicrous that Sikh employees who served in their positions through the height of pandemic are now being terminated or demoted for not being able to be fitted with N95 respirators due to their facial hair.

“This comes at a time when mask mandates and public safety measures have been relaxed and vaccines are readily available.”

The letter asks for urgent resolution to the issue of Sikh guards losing their jobs.

Nearly one month later, Boparai said no “substantive reply” had come from the city in response, until Monday night.

Speaking to The Canadian Press in December 2020, Colin Furness, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, said he looks at beards as a “variable” in how well a mask fits, but “not a determiner.”

A mask can be ill-fitting whether you have a beard or not, he said. And while the length of facial hair will impact fit further, he says mask-wearing is only one safety precaution we should be practising.

“I don’t think beards should be demonized, because it’s not just about wearing a mask,” he said. “It’s when you start thinking that masks protect you completely that beards become more risky.”

With files from The Canadian Press

Ben Cohen is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @bcohenn

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