Airport screener suspended for wearing long skirt

Muslim woman altered uniform to comply with her beliefs

A Muslim woman was suspended from her airport security job after she altered the length of her uniform’s skirt to comply with her religious beliefs.

Halima Muse, 33, was employed by Garda to screen passengers and luggage at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. Garda is contracted by the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) to provide airport security services.

Security employees at the airport wear a standard uniform. Since the current uniform was introduced in 2003, female employees have had the choice of wearing slacks or a knee-length skirt. Muse, a practicing Muslim who immigrated to Canada from Somalia, wore slacks for most of the six years she’s been with Garda since knee-length skirts are contrary to her religion’s standards of modesty.

However, Muse said she was never comfortable with the slacks because they showed the shape of her body and her Islamic beliefs require women to wear clothes that hide the body’s shape. She always wore a blazer to cover her hips. In February this year, she asked the worker in charge of uniforms if she could wear a loose skirt longer than the standard. Though none was available, it was agreed she could wear one if she had it made herself with the same material and colour.

Muse wore the ankle-length skirt for several months until August, when she was told by a manager her skirt must meet the standard length. After asking CATSA for an allowance on the longer skirt length, Garda was told the uniform standards were set and women must wear either a knee-length skirt or slacks, with no exceptions.

However, Muse continued to wear the longer skirt and was suspended for one day on Aug. 11. This was followed by a three-day suspension on Aug. 15 and a five-day suspension on Aug. 22. When she returned from the last suspension still wearing the long skirt, she was suspended indefinitely.

Muse filed a grievance against Garda through her union, Teamsters Local 847, but Garda said CATSA controlled the uniform policy. On Nov. 16, she filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, claiming discrimination based on her religious beliefs. She argued no safety or security issues had been raised and accommodating an extra 12 inches of skirt length would not cause undue hardship for her employer.

Last month, CATSA said it would review the uniform ¬policy. Garda has reinstated Muse — to an administrative position not requiring a uniform at the same pay — until CATSA reviews the policy. It has also agreed to pay her full back pay for the time she was suspended, according to the Teamsters.

CATSA justified the strict uniform policy as important to keeping a professional image in looking after airport security. But a clean, professional image is likely not enough of a reason to infringe on Muse’s religious freedom, said Christine Thomlinson, a partner at Toronto employment law firm Rubin Thomlinson.

Creating a professional, easily identifiable image may help motivate employees and comfort customers, particularly where security is involved, but there should still be room for accommodation, said Thomlinson.

“Employee morale and customer satisfaction are not defences to discrimination,” she said.

The long, loose skirt is a form of dress Muse feels is tied to her religious identity, which shouldn’t be taken lightly, said Thomlinson.

There could be safety concerns with a long skirt in a security job which, if proven, could constitute a bona fide occupational requirement for the uniform standards, she said. However, even if that’s the case, the employer still has to demonstrate a duty to accommodate to the point of undue hardship.

CATSA made no attempt to accommodate, giving Muse the choice of following its exact standards or being suspended.

The choice of slacks or a knee-length skirt wasn’t a reasonable accommodation because neither was acceptable to Muse’s religious beliefs. The fact she wore slacks for years before raising the issue doesn’t lessen the duty either, said Thomlinson.

“Maybe she felt she couldn’t bring (the issue) forward previously,” she said. “Further reflection shouldn’t be held against her. Both choices were violations of her human rights.”

Although CATSA set the uniform requirements, Muse’s immediate employer, Garda, had an obligation to push for her rights, especially since it allowed the longer skirt for several months until CATSA ruled against it, said Thomlinson.

“It can’t just say, ‘Someone else won’t allow the skirt,’” she said. As Muse’s direct employer, Garda is responsible for ensuring she is accommodated.

Thomlinson pointed to a three-step accommodation test, which was developed in previous case law. The test requires that the discriminatory practice: is for a work-related purpose; is based on a good-faith belief (which must be supported by research); and is reasonably necessary.

CATSA’s defence would likely fail on the third requirement, since it hasn’t yet given a sufficient reason to violate Muse’s human rights, said Thomlinson.

CATSA may have realized it hasn’t lived up to its duty, said Thomlinson, as Muse’s reinstatement and payment of back pay by Garda while the agency evaluates the uniform policy are similar to what would be awarded as remedies if it was found to have violated Muse’s human rights.

“I would be amazed to hear they exhausted their duty to accommodate,” she said.

Jeffrey R. Smith is editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a sister publication to Canadian HR Reporter. For more information visit

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