Chain says Sikhs must ask to wear their turbans

By MARINA JIMENEZ and JILL MAHONEY
From Friday's Globe and Mail


Subway Restaurant franchise owners and employees must apply in writing for company dress-code waivers to wear turbans or other religious coverings, the sandwich chain said yesterday.

But Hardip Singh Brah, a Sikh Subway shop owner in Edmonton, said the policy failed him and asked why workers should have to apply for permission to wear turbans, key tenets of their faith.

“It's like you have to ask permission to have your own religion,” said Mr. Brah's son Parm.

The elder Mr. Brah, 56, says in a complaint to the Alberta Human Rights Commission that a Subway representative not only forbade him to wear his turban while serving customers but called the religious covering a “diaper on his head.”

“It was a very, very poor comment he had; very bad language has been used on my turban.”

Surrounded by family, friends and his lawyers, Mr. Brah spoke to reporters in one of his franchise outlets between Punjab Sweets & Restaurant and A-Class Spice Bazaar in Mill Woods, an Edmonton suburb that is home to many South Asians.

Kevin Kane, a spokesman at Subway's head office in Connecticut, said he could not comment on Mr. Brah's complaint, which is before the Alberta Human Rights Commission and the subject of a civil lawsuit.

“But I can tell you there are hundreds of Subway employees and franchisees all over the world who wear turbans in their stores. They apply for a waiver on religious grounds, but while waiting for the waiver they may wear their turban. It's like a paperwork thing for the inspectors,” Mr. Kane said.

Mr. Brah says in the human-rights complaint that his regional development agent insulted his turban, calling it a diaper. In this context, he said he did not feel comfortable applying in writing to this same person for permission to deviate from the company dress code, which requires all employees to wear Subway visors or ball caps.

Dan Mohan, the development agent, hung up when reached by telephone yesterday. In a statement of defence for the civil claim, he denies uttering derogatory remarks.

The family's lawsuit alleges that Subway representatives threatened to terminate its franchise agreements, which led to them sell five of their nine shops below market value and squashed their dream of owning 20 of the popular restaurants.

“We worked very, very hard,” Mr. Brah said. “What has happened now broke our heart and our soul.”

He said he avoids serving customers, a job he once loved. Sometimes he comes in for coffee but tries “to stay away from it as much as I can.”

Subway denies the allegations, saying in its statement of defence that its employees treated the Brah family “with the utmost of respect” and in accordance with the Subway operations manual.

Mr. Brah's complaint to the Alberta Human Rights Commission was upheld by investigators last month. Their 15-page confidential report found that Subway's policy was discriminatory and recommended that Mr. Brah receive $6,500 in damages. However, the report is not legally binding, and it is up to the commission to make a final ruling on the case.

Mr. Brah also complained that his repeated calls to Subway's Connecticut headquarters went unanswered. “I tried to tell them for a long time, but nothing.”

Mr. Kane said he could not comment on whether Subway's policy failed Mr. Brah but said 650 people work at company headquarters to assist franchisees in the operations of their stores. He said that the waiver policy was introduced in 2001, and that in some Middle Eastern countries with a particular style of dress and/or religious apparel, a blanket waiver exists. “In a country like Bahrain, for example, there is no need to apply for a uniform waiver.”

Subway has more than 20,000 restaurants in 71 countrie. Its Web site says that despite the “diversity of cultures,” the menu stays the same, with the exception of some cultural and religious variations.