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BC Ferries workers ask for religious exemption from clean-shaven rule

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A union representing marine workers is taking BC Ferries to task over one of the company's policies regarding facial hair.

Dan Kimmerly, president of the Ships Officers’ Component of the BC Ferry & Marine Workers' Union, says three employees are looking for religious exemptions from the policy that men must be clean-shaven

"The members that we’re directly representing in this specific instance right now are from the Sikh community," Kimmerly said.

All employees are expected to have clean-shaven faces in case they need to wear masks while fighting fires on the vessel, but Kimmerly says the policy differs depending on where in the company employees are located.

"Captains are usually OK and some chief engineers, as well, depending on the type of vessel that they’re working on," he said. "Shipboard employees is mostly where we see the clean-shaven policy, also in some of the trades."

Kimmerly says marine workers in other companies are permitted the exemption and one of the workers BC Ferries won't allow on a vessel is working elsewhere.

"One of the workers is off working for another company in Canada right now, so they’re able to [be] gainfully employed for another company. However, they would like to work in B.C. for BC Ferries and they can’t," he said.

According to BC Ferries spokesperson Deborah Marshall, the regulation surrounding beards actually comes from WorkSafeBC.

"They need to be clean-shaven in order to don a self-contained breathing apparatus and that’s in the event of, say, an engine room that was filled with smoke," she said. "You wouldn’t want somebody to not have a proper seal and facial hair can compromise the seal so it’s actually putting the worker at risk."

Manpreet Singh has been with BC Ferries for four years as a first engineer. He was told to leave the vessel he was working on because of his beard and he initially complied.

"My mother-in-law, my father-in-law they all went against me: 'Why are you clean shaven?'" he said. "I’ve never shaved in my whole life. Even my kids say, 'Why did you shave it?' For bread and butter I have to do it," he said.

Singh says he began refusing to shave and has been off work since February or March of this year. He said he is still being paid his base wage to stay home as opposed to his full salary but he says he wants to sail again.

The 50-year-old says he has worked as an engineer for his entire career, working with American, Middle Eastern and Canadian companies but says BC Ferries appears to be the only one that won’t provide religious exemptions for beards.

"The people on my ship, they all had beards and nobody objects," Singh said. "On the commercial ships in Canada, people are keeping their beards. In [the] Canadian navy, people are keeping [their] beard. Then what’s the difference in BC Ferries?"

British Columbia's Office of the Human Rights Commissioner said it has not received any complaints on the issue so it couldn’t comment on the matter.

Singh says he offered to spend $4,000 of his own money to purchase specialized masks but his offer hasn’t been accepted by BC Ferries.

"I used to work on chemical tankers and oil tankers and they are much more dangerous because there are noxious gases and everything," he said. "We used to keep the beard and put the mask on top."

Singh and the union maintain that medical and religious exemptions should be permitted, especially given the fact BC Ferries is having a hard time finding qualified personnel to work on its vessels.

"All we’re asking for is the company to allow certain exemptions from the policy," Kimmerly said. "There’s usually one [exemption request] ongoing at any one time where somebody is either seeking an accommodation or having their work altered because of either belief or medical [issue]."

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