France: Companies confronted by religious demands
A third of French companies say they are concerned by demands from their employees regarding wearing the headscarf, holidays and prayers.
"Managing Eid is a real headache,' says the manager of a transport company. "Half of the bus-drivers are Muslim. When they all ask to be absent on that day, how do you assure 100% service?"
To anticipate these pressures, certain companies now distribute a calendar of all religious festivals to their foremen. While others repeatedly oppose 'absences for religious reasons'.
"Every company puts together a place for Allah. If the Muslim employees are many, they dictate the norm. Otherwise it's very random," says anthropologist Dounia Bouzar, who today publishes the results of an extensive study of the working world ("Allah a-t-il sa place dans l'entreprise?" "Does Allah have a place at work?"). An educational book where regretfully anonymous managers tell of daily life, the increase in demands.
A third of French companies expressed concern, principally in Île-de-France but also in the north-east and south-east of France, in the trade, services and construction sectors, according to the results of an Ifop poll from April 2008. "Can you fire an employee who starts wearing a headscarf?" managers often ask when turning to Dounia Bouzar to conduct an audit. Or repeating "Should the big holidays of Islam be considered vacation days?" In order to guide the companies, the anti-discrimination authority (HALDE) published its opinion last March. In essence: religious demands can be denied only when they penalize service. Internal regulations will be annulled by the courts if they ban the headscarf for no real reason. Since then the IMS philanthropic association, where Claude Bebear united the biggest French companies, has also decided to put out a guide on the topic.
Because the requests come from beyond the industrial sector now. "In banking, where the number of managers is important, there's an increase in religious demands. And in the automotive and construction sectors, the issue is raised among the administration," says Benjamin Blevier, of IMS. This new visibility fuels fears of an escalation. "Soon everybody will arrive with kippas, crosses and display Christ everywhere in the office," an HR manager predicted to Dounia Bouzar. "If I tolerate any request, it will grow," he worries.
While the anxiety is widely shared, the rules in the field vary widely. Paradoxically, Ramadan, which is very visible, is rather well accepted in the business world, where it looks like a cultural tradition, says Lylia and Dounia Bouzar. In the construction sector HR managers are particularly concerned about the risks of accidents, because employees who do not eat are weaker. they usually adjust the schedules if they have many practicing employees, explain the authors. In retail, long breaks are provided for breaking the fast, and not in midday. According to one official, restaurants remain open longer and offer halal soup, milk and fruit, a sort of basic requirement.
However, some managers of North African origin regret the communitarian aspects. "I'm an atheist. Yet I'm constantly offered to leave earlier," protested Faycal. "It's as if we said: today we commemorate the ascent of Jesus to Heaven and so we all finish at 3pm."
While Ramadan is tolerated, prayer at work causes problem by most employees and managers. Symbolically, prayer at work seems like an act of 'proselytizing'. "Prayer is at home," repeated most of the respondents. "It's out of the question that he'll pray while the others are working," said one boss. While elsewhere an employee got upset, asking why prayer was allowed while they were refused time to pick up their child from kindergarten.
In large companies prayer rooms have been nonetheless set up. Particularly in the automotive industry. One French manufacturer even built changing rooms. Conversely, a big Japanese firm had employees sign that they will not practice their religion in the workplace, in defiance of the law, says Dounia Bouzar.
As for the headscarf, it's still not very much understood. Except for junior positions, companies would like to prohibit it. But the legal precedents are based on the criteria of general law, says the anthropologist. "Simple contact with clients doesn't allow banning the headscarf." It should be shown that it contradicts the safety rules, that it can hurt the convictions of the surroundings, or that it harms performance or commercial interests. The general administration rules apply for religious demands.
Source: Le Figaro (French), h/t Bivouac-ID