The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has found cause to believe that managers at a Cargill meatpacking plant in Colorado who allegedly refused to allow a group of Muslim employees to pray at work during their break times violated those workers’ civil rights, Kristen Leigh Painter reported at the Star Tribune last week:
The EEOC’s determination, reached Aug. 3, could set up a federal discrimination lawsuit should Cargill fail to seek a settlement agreement with the 140 fired workers seeking legal action. Of the thousands of discrimination charges filed with the federal government each year, a small fraction of them gain the backing of the commission. …
The U.S. EEOC also found reasonable cause last week that Teamsters Local No. 455, the union representing workers at the Fort Morgan plant, didn’t offer fair representation to the Muslim workers. Last October, the National Labor Relations Board sided with the terminated workers in their complaint. …
With the EEOC determining that there’s reasonable cause to believe discrimination occurred, Cargill and the employees now will have the chance to settle the matter through a confidential process called conciliation. If the two sides can’t reach an resolution then the employees’ private lawyers — and the EEOC on behalf of the U.S. government — could sue Cargill.
The dispute stems from December 2015, when a group of over 150 Muslim workers, mostly Somali immigrants, were dismissed from the Cargill plant after walking off the job in protest over a dispute over prayer breaks.
Broaching the topic of religion in the workplace can mean wading into an emotional and legal minefield, which is why most US companies prefer not to talk about it. Yet as the religious diversity of the workforce increases and religious discrimination complaints are on the rise, faith is becoming an issue some employers can’t afford to ignore. To that end, the French oil company Total has issued an extensive guide to religion in the workplace, Francesca Fontana reports at the Wall Street Journal. The guide covers both general knowledge, such as an explanation of the basic tenets of major world religions, as well as workplace-specific issues such as whether managers need to provide halal food at company meals:
At 92 pages, the English-language version of Total’s guide offers few firm rules but states that employees’ religious practices, such as prayer, should generally be respected and accommodated. Employees aren’t required to read the document, which is available to those who are “curious,” said a company spokeswoman. The company created the guide to aid managers and employees who “may have questions or doubts on this topic, working with people who might not eat, dress or pray the same,” said the spokeswoman.
It’s interesting and telling that Total created this guide to satisfy employees’ curiosity, rather than any legal concern. In doing so, it is demonstrating that religious pluralism and tolerance are among the values it wants to instill in its culture by encouraging and empowering employees to educate themselves about their colleagues’ religious beliefs and practices. Rather than imposing a long list of rules, Total invites employees to understand why these values matter at their company, which our research at CEB (now Gartner) suggests is often a better way of getting the message across.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and for most of the 1.8 billion Muslims around the world, it is also a holy period commemorated by a month of fasting.
The fast requires Muslims to abstain from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset and encourages increased participation in charitable activity and prayer. In majority-Muslim countries, businesses often slow or shut down in an effort to accommodate the holy month, which began this year in late May and ends in the coming week. (The exact date of Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of the month, depends on the sighting of the moon and varies slightly from country to country—this year, for example, it begins on June 24 in the US but June 25 in the UK.)
In a corporate work environment, it can be challenging to meet these demands under the rigors of the traditional 40- to 50-hour workweek. Sure it may not be too difficult to part with your morning coffee or mid-afternoon snack, but what about going without water all day and skipping lunch? Waking up in the morning for work is difficult enough, but at the crack of dawn, every day, to have your last taste of food and drink before sundown is a lot to manage. Yet millions of Muslims from Los Angeles to London, including doctors, restaurateurs, and even professional athletes have found a way to make it work despite these obstacles.
Fortunately, according to research from Oxford Strategic Consulting recently featured at Australia’s Human Resources Director magazine, the modern workplace is becoming an increasingly friendly place for observers of Ramadan as employers with Muslim-majority workforces find more effective ways to support their employees during the holy month:
Various rights groups are up in arms after the European Court of Justice ruled on Tuesday that it was permissible for companies to bar employees from wearing religious symbols, including the Islamic headscarf or hijab worn by observant Muslim women, under some circumstances. In its ruling, Reuters reports, the ECJ found that a Belgian firm with a rule prohibiting customer-facing employees from wearing religious symbols may not have discriminated against a Muslim employee dismissed for refusing to remove her hijab:
Reactions … focused on the conclusion that services firm G4S in Belgium was entitled to dismiss receptionist Samira Achbita in 2006 if, in pursuit of legitimate business interests, it fairly applied a broad dress code for all customer-facing staff to project an image of political and religious neutrality.
The Open Society Justice Initiative, a group backed by the philanthropist George Soros, said the ruling “weakens the guarantee of equality” offered by EU non-discrimination laws. “In many member states, national laws will still recognize that banning religious headscarves at work is discrimination,” policy office Maryam Hmadoun said. “But in places where national law is weak, this ruling will exclude many Muslim women from the workplace.”
Interestingly, the court found that in both the Belgian case and the parallel case of a Muslim woman in France, the employees’ terminations may have been discriminatory in nature, but nonetheless ruled that a policy banning the hijab and other religious garb to preserve an organization’s image of neutrality is not necessarily so. However, rights groups argue that these bans target Muslims in effect, if not intent, and threaten to shut many Muslim women out of the workforce entirely.
Last December, a group of over 150 Muslim workers, mostly Somali immigrants, were fired from a Cargill meat packing and distribution plant in Colorado after walking off the job in protest over a dispute over prayer breaks. Observant Muslims are obliged to pray five times a day—before dawn, mid-day, in the afternoon, at sunset, and in the evening—so for the typical full-time worker, at least one or two prayer times take place during the workday. According to the workers, the plant had formerly allowed them to take breaks to pray, but changed its policy suddenly in December and supervisors began telling them that if they wanted to pray, they had to go home (Cargill has disputed this characterization of the events). The workers attempted to negotiate a new arrangement with management but the negotiations broke down, the Muslim employees walked out, and they were subsequently dismissed.
Now, the Colorado department of labor has decided that these workers are eligible for unemployment benefits, ruling that the plant had wrongly forced them to choose between their religion and their jobs, the Denver Post reports:
The workers filed for unemployment payments after they were fired in December by Cargill Inc., amid a dispute over whether the Muslim employees could take prayer breaks during their shifts. Cargill challenged the claims, but the company withdrew its appeals this summer after losing 20 cases, officials with the state Department of Labor said. While the labor department declined to put a dollar amount on the total paid to the workers, Cher Haavind, the agency’s director of government, policy and public relations, said the average maximum benefit per claim was $8,841.