Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic year and it is observed for one lunar month. This year it will be from 9 July to 8 August. As part of their observance of Ramadan, people of Muslim faith often fast from sunrise until sunset during this period. We take a look at issues employers may need to deal with.
Q. A few of my employees have asked for time off over Ramadan – are they automatically entitled to this?
A. Employees will be entitled to annual leave in the usual way, and will have to comply with your procedures in terms of making the request in reasonable time ahead of the planned leave. You will need to comply with your usual procedures in terms of sanctioning it where it can be accommodated. If, for some reason you cannot accommodate the request, for example if a number of other employees have already been granted leave for the same time, or there is a particular business need for their attendance at that time, you will need to explain to the employee why you are turning down their request. As set out below, it would be unlawful to refuse the request just because it was for Ramadan, and this would give rise to a claim of discrimination.
Given the summer months are always popular for employees to take annual leave, it would be prudent to remind employees at the start of the year to submit their annual leave requests as early as possible, so as to avoid disappointment by leaving it until later when their request cannot be accommodated.
Q. I have been told by one of my employees that he is intending to fast for the whole month, and not eat during the working day. I am worried about his productivity – what can I do?
A. It is common for employees observing Ramadan to fast between sunset and sunrise, which can sometimes have an effect on their energy levels. If you are aware that an employee is planning to fast for this period, we advise meeting with the employee in advance to discuss what measures both parties can take in order to minimise any disruption to their performance and to the wider business arising from their fast. Examples of measures you can take are:
• Consider altering their shifts so that they start earlier and finish earlier
• Consider moving any important meetings or events to the earlier part of the day
• Encourage the employee to take regular short breaks, perhaps including a short walk outside if they feel lacking in energy.
The key to ensuring the employee’s observance can be accommodated and the business is unaffected is good communication with the employee, so that any concerns from either party can be discussed openly and agreement can be reached.
Q. My employee is a fork-lift driver – is there anything different I should do?
A. If the employee is carrying out a manual job where a lack of concentration could have health and safety implications, then more caution is required. Once you have discussed with the employee their plans, conduct a short risk assessment to see if there are any risks to the current plan proposed by the employee. Report back to the employee if there are any concerns, and discuss with the employee possible solutions such as those set out above. Alternatively, you could discuss with the employee that he may wish to take annual leave, or unpaid leave, for the period or for part of the day. However, remember that you cannot force an employee to take unpaid leave if they do not wish to do so.
Q. One of my employees has asked for different shifts over Ramadan – do I have to say yes?
A. This is a question of balancing the needs of the business and trying to accommodate the employee’s request as far as possible. As set out above, altering shifts may be in the business’ interests if the employee is planning to fast and their energy levels may be affected. Have a meeting with the employee to understand their reasons for the request, consider the request genuinely and try and identify ways in which it may be accommodated. You then should then report back to the employee within a reasonable time to discuss your response.
If you refuse the request, there must be clear and identifiable business reasons as to why it cannot be accommodated. Before refusing the request, consider alternatives, such as allowing alternate shifts for part of the working week, or even varying the shift by only a short period, such as allowing the employee to start an hour earlier, and not to take a lunch break, and therefore finish earlier.
Q. If I say no to the employee’s requests in connection with Ramadan, will I face a claim of discrimination?
A. It is unlawful to treat an employee less favourably because of their religion or belief. It is also unlawful to apply a practice which would put workers of a particular religion or belief at a disadvantage.
A business can refuse an employee’s requests in connection with observing Ramadan but only if there are clear and identifiable business reasons for doing so, that are not because of the employee’s Muslim faith. In order to successfully defend any claim of religion or belief discrimination the employer would need to show that they had given genuine consideration to the employee’s request and made legitimate attempts to accommodate them where the business allowed. It is therefore a good idea to keep written records of any such requests and discussions with the employee, together with the outcome of such discussions.