Skirts ‘unsafe’ on ladders

Women’s steep climbs with only one hand free ‘terrifying,’ UPS manager tells rights hearing

Sep 18, 2008 04:30 AM

A human resources manager was concerned for the safety of Muslim women she saw climbing steep ladders while holding their long skirts in one hand to reach their Toronto UPS work stations.

“It was terrifying. I wouldn’t want to do what they were doing. It caused me great concern,” Michelle Skabar told Canadian Human Rights Tribunal panel chair Karen Jensen yesterday.

“It didn’t comply with our documented safety training,” she told the hearing held at a Dixon Rd. hotel.

The women’s duties required them to move about on open metal staircases and steep ladders some six metres high in the UPS delivery plant.

Skabar’s concerns eventually sparked a risk hazard analysis that reviewed clothing requirements at the UPS site.

The eight devout Muslim women, all temporary workers, had flipped boxes upright on the conveyor-belt system for anywhere from a year to two years.

The women, who have arrived at the hearing every day in traditional ankle-length skirts, hijabs and neck scarves, have said their religion requires them to dress that way.

They have said that during the entire time they worked at UPS, they were never told their clothing posed a risk.

“There is no excuse. There was a gap in our process (at UPS). We’ve corrected that,” Skabar said yesterday.

The Muslim women were not told of safety regulations at the outset because of “a serious lack of staffing,” Skabar said. “So unfortunately, when they were hired they didn’t get that information.” New employees now receive safety training upon arrival, she told the hearing.

The Muslim women, who eventually lost their jobs, filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission alleging discrimination on the basis of religion and gender.

Skabar said it was the first time in 15 years as a UPS employee that she had observed women in long skirts climbing up the steep ladders near a conveyor belt when she saw them in the early spring of 2005.

“Muslim or not, a long skirt would not be acceptable” doing those jobs, any more than baggy jeans worn low on the hips, a style popular with youth, Skabar said.

The eight women worked manoeuvring packages, some weighing up to 35 kilograms, on a conveyor belt to allow an overhead scanner to reads the bar code on the shipping labels, according to an agreed statement of facts.

Their temporary jobs became full-time union positions as a result of a collective bargaining pact reached in 2005. The women were told they would have to raise their skirts to knee length in the workplace for safety reasons in order to keep their jobs, Skabar testified.

The women refused to comply and their employment ceased on July 13, 2005.

Six of the women had brought UPS a letter from their mosque stating their religion required them to wear full-length skirts.


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