Turban-wearing Sikh butts heads with WorkSafeBC over hard hat policy at job sites

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      A Sikh employed by WorkSafeBC is claiming that he is being discriminated against by the provincial agency.

      Harpreet Gill has alleged that his employer’s policy barring him from inspecting job sites if he doesn’t remove his turban and wear a hard hat does not accommodate his religious beliefs.

      In one incident cited by Gill, a part of his turban touched a urinal when it fell while he was trying to put it back on after he had to remove it at a construction area.

      For the rest of the day, according to the man with roots from India, he had to wear a soiled turban, which humiliated him.

      Sikhs are forbidden by their religion to cut their hair, and they have to wear a turban to protect their locks.

      Turbans, which come in a variety of colours, are a part of the Sikh identity and culture.

      Gill filed a complaint against WorkSafe, and the Ministry of Labour before the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.

      The two provincial agencies applied to have Gill’s complaint dismissed without a trial, but only the ministry was successful in this regard.

      Tribunal member Beverly Froese decided that Gill’s complaint against WorkSafeBC will proceed to a hearing.

      In her reasons for decision, Froese recalled that Gill’s complaint against the labour ministry was connected with three letters written by ministers in 2014, 2015, and 2017.

      The letters were widely distributed in government and the South Asian community, including the Committee to Defend Rights of Turban Wearing Sikhs in British Columbia.

      The letters stated that a legislative measure exempting turban-wearing Sikhs from hard hats would “jeopardize the goal of occupational health and safety for all workers in the province”.

      The letters also noted that “no Canadian jurisdiction exempts Sikhs who wear turbans from the requirement to wear a hard hat”.

      Gill claimed that the letters “contain false information about the safety of Sikh workers who wear turbans”.

      “He says the Minister’s Letters were based on false assumptions and negative stereotypes about Sikh workers who wear turbans, and they were not supported by scientific data, studies or statistics,” Froese related.

      In its application to dismiss the complaint without a hearing, the ministry convinced the tribunal that the letters did not cause any adverse impacts on Gill’s employment.

      For its part, WorkSafe argued that its accommodation plan for Gill was “close to ‘perfect’ as possible”.

      Under the plan, Gill can wear his turban as part of his daily working attire.

      He just cannot attend worksites that require him to wear hard hats.

      Gill has claimed that he was the first turban-wearing Sikh employed by WorkSafe as an occupational hygiene officer.

      In her decision, Froese stated that a hearing is necessary with respect to the man’s complaint against the agency because the parties presented conflicting evidence.

      While WorkSafe argued that it accommodated the man’s religious beliefs, Gill claimed that he felt singled out.

      Froese noted that “even if Mr. Gill has not, as WorkSafe says, suffered any loss of hours, pay, responsibilities or status from being excluded from worksites where hard hats are mandatory, that does not mean he cannot establish he experienced an employment‐related adverse impact”.

      “In the hard hat cases referred to by WorkSafe and Mr. Gill, it was accepted that unless justified, it is discrimination on the basis of religion for Sikh workers who wear turbans to be excluded from worksites where hard hats are mandatory,” Froese wrote.

      “In other words,” Froese continued, “this case law supports that mandatory hard hat rules that present a barrier to full and equal participation in the workplace on the ground of religion must be justified.”