Muslim workers in the UK prepare to observe the holy month of Ramadan during the time of coronavirus

Worshippers exit the UK’s East London Mosque during the first day of Ramadan on 20 July 2012. (Alamy Stock Photo/Piero Cruciatti)

Ramadan is fast approaching (23 April to 23 May) and Muslims around the world are preparing to observe this time of spiritual reflection, self-improvement and heightened worship. But for those working in non-Muslim countries during the Islamic holy month, obeying religious commitments, including fasting and regular prayer, can be testing. Even more so during the midst of a global pandemic.

The outbreak of the new coronavirus means that religious and cultural commitments during this year’s Ramadan will meet unique challenges. Strong familial and community relations are fundamental to the Islamic faith, so as well as adapting to the suspension of mosque congregations, the tight restrictions on visiting friends and extended family, along with the other social distancing measures introduced in most countries to limit physical contact, will be particularly tough for Muslims.

Meanwhile the businesses and organisations that are still open during an almost worldwide shutdown are attempting to adjust to new working practices and conditions.

In Europe, where around 25 million Muslims live in the 27 member states of the European Union, having EU-wide policies in support of minority religions has been a challenge.

As Julie Pascoet, senior advocacy officer at the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), tells Equal Times: “In Europe it’s already difficult to have general measures in place for accommodating religious diversity in the workplace, let alone for a specific event like Ramadan.”

Devoid of EU legislation, businesses, organisations, trade unions and employers in different countries have their own guidelines and practices to support workers of the Islamic faith, including during Ramadan. In the United Kingdom – where more than 3.3 million Muslims make Islam the second largest faith after Christianity, the fastest-growing religion in the UK, and one of the oldest and most well-established Muslim communities in Europe – there are no formal requirements to oblige employers to support Muslims in the workplace during Ramadan, with the provision of a place to pray or flexible working hours, for example. However, employers must comply with the Equality Act 2010 to ensure that nobody is disadvantaged in their place of work due to their religion or personal beliefs.

To comply with the Equality Act, employers must treat fasting employees with respect so that those observing Ramadan cannot make legal claims of discrimination. However, some of the general measures introduced in the UK to tackle coronavirus actually make this easier. As Zainab Gulamali, public affairs manager at the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), explains: “If the COVID-19 pandemic requires those who are able to work from home to continue to do so during Ramadan, this may make fasting easier. People will be able to rest when they would have been commuting, they can utilise their own prayer space and they won’t have to worry about things like team lunches. However, for those who will be going out to work whilst fasting, it’s important that employers are able to support them.”

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Tackling Islamophobia

Across Europe, 20 years of hostility, suspicion and prejudice towards Muslims and the Islamic faith in the aftermath of 9/11 has led to widespread Islamophobia. The rise of populism, racism and nationalism in recent years has put Muslims, particularly those who are visibly devout, in danger of increasing hate crimes and terrorist violence. Recent examples range from the Hanau shootings in Germany in February, which resulted in the deaths of nine people at the hands of a white supremacist, to the attempted murder of a man in his seventies at London’s Central Mosque a day later.

Research conducted by the UK’s Social Mobility Commission published by the Guardian in 2017 showed that discrimination against British Muslims hampers their progress in the education system and labour market, with Muslim adults more than 15 per cent less likely to be in full-time employment than the general population, less likely to be called for a job interview if they have an ‘ethnic-sounding’ name and more vulnerable to bullying and harassment. However, there are many trade unions, equality organisations and employers working to support their Muslim workers.

For example, to help employers in Europe manage religious diversity, ENAR has published a toolkit, which maps out strategies that employers can take to create an environment in which religious minorities can feel “included, respected and valued.”

The toolkit recommends that human resources managers develop tailored programmes on culture and religious awareness as well as on unconscious bias. The guidelines also note the importance of allowing employees to wear religious clothing such as the burka and hijab. Banning such clothing would show intolerance towards employees of religious minorities and could result in an employer being challenged for discrimination.

Designed more specifically to protect the religious rights of workers in the UK, are the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations, which came into force in December 2003. In its Muslims in the Workplace: A Good Practice Guide for Employers and Employees, the MCB notes that the Employment Equality law is a “welcome development for religious communities in Britain, as it provides direct protection against religious discrimination in employment and vocation training.”

In reference to the importance of information being made available to employers to inform them about the recommended steps to help Muslim staff during Ramadan, Gulamali of the MCB tells Equal Times: “It’s imperative that employers understand what Ramadan is, how it impacts individuals and how their staff choose to practice this. The TUC has produced great guidance for employers on how best to support their staff, for example by being flexible on working hours or shift times, avoiding compulsory team lunches or evening meetings and ensuring there is a quiet space in the workplace for prayers.”

There are both public sector and private sector employers that take these recommendations very seriously. For example, VHR, an international technical recruitment agency, which is headquartered in south-east London and has 90 employees across nine global offices, has practices in place to support Muslim employees, including a flexible working hours benefit which is extended for Muslim employees during Ramadan.

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“Throughout the fasting period, employees can come into the office at 10am and leave earlier, and we offer working from home options. We know that supported employees are more productive, better at their jobs and most importantly much happier, so celebrating and supporting religious events is good for our business and our employees,” says Aimée Treasure, head of marketing at VHR.

Asad Uzzaman, VHR’s finance assistant, speaks highly of the support he receives at his place of work during Ramadan. “Last year, VHR dedicated one of the four meeting room facilities for Muslim staff to pray in during the day. The flexible working hours also helped immensely,” he says.

Schools across the country, especially those with high numbers of staff and pupils from ethnic minorities, are also keen to develop a culture of religious tolerance for everyone. Bruce Green, a former headteacher at St. Margaret’s Church of England Primary School in Whalley Range, Manchester, says the school consistently caters for the unique needs of Muslim members of staff and pupils, particularly during events like Ramadan, where observant Muslims are invited to use the school hall for prayers at lunchtime. Despite being a Anglican school, Green says it promotes a “very understanding culture where all religions, and none, are valued and are central to the community spirit in the school, not just during Ramadan.” At work, school or in society at general, Green concludes: “Practical support is probably more valuable than any policy.”

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