The holy month of Ramadan, observed by Muslims around the globe, officially began in the UK on Sunday 5 May and will end on Tuesday 4 June. The exact timing of this important festival varies each year as the dates depend upon the lunar cycle.
Employers with Muslim employees need to be aware that during Ramadan, these workers are likely to be fasting during daylight hours, going without food or water from sunrise until sunset. The elderly, pregnant women and children are exempt from fasting. In addition, during the holy month, Muslims are encouraged to pray five times a day. The festival of Eid-al-Fitr celebrates the end of Ramadan.
Employers are liable for discrimination and harassment (including on the grounds of religion or belief) by their employees. It is therefore in employers’ best interests to make sure all their employees understand what is involved for those observing Ramadan and the impact of this on the workplace.
For those who have to work during Ramadan, the physical effects of fasting can be challenging. Employers have a duty to take care of all employees’ health and safety. They should ideally be carrying out risk assessments for those observing Ramadan and, where necessary, putting in place measures to ensure the safety of Muslim employees and their work colleagues. This will vary depending upon the nature of the employer’s business and the roles being carried out.
Towards the end of the day, when Muslim employees have not had food or water since dawn, their concentration and productivity is likely to be lower than normal. Individuals should not be performance-managed as a result and managers should be made aware that unduly criticising an employee whose performance suffers as a result of fasting, could lead to claims for religious discrimination or constructive dismissal.
Employers should consider allowing Muslim employees to work flexible hours or temporarily putting in place remote working arrangements. Alternatively, employers should consider rescheduling complex meetings or difficult tasks to the morning when the energy and attention levels of employees observing Ramadan may be higher.
Given the importance placed on prayer during Ramadan, Muslim employees may wish to take rest breaks throughout the day to pray. Only one 20-minute break every six hours is mandatory under the Working Time Regulations 1998 (in most circumstances). However, employers should approach requests for additional prayer breaks sensitively and should think creatively about accommodating requests where possible. For example, could a dedicated prayer room be put aside on the premises for the duration of Ramadan to reduce the amount of time employees need to be away from work during the day?
There are no public holidays in the UK for non-Christian days. Muslim employees will want to celebrate Eid al-Fitr and so employers will need to deal with authorising requests for annual leave in accordance with their usual procedure. Requests should not be dismissed out of hand simply because it is a busy period or others already have holiday booked. Full consideration should be given to the practicability of accommodating the request.
If many Muslim employees want to take the same time off, it may not be possible to accommodate everyone due to the needs of the business, but employers should act reasonably and have a fair system for granting leave that does not put employees of any particular religion or belief (or those who do not hold any religious beliefs) at a disadvantage. What is reasonable will depend on the size of the employer, its resources and the number of employees requesting leave at the same time. Compromise might be necessary such as turning down the request but, putting the employee to the top of the queue for next year.
If there are large numbers of Muslims in the workforce, it may be more practical for the employer to close down altogether on the relevant day and require everyone in the business to take that time as holiday.
Ben Power is a senior partner at Springhouse Solicitors