In the Arab world, Ramadan brings shortened work hours for most employees but in the UK it’s often business as usual. ELAS employment law consultant Emma O’Leary takes a look at how employers can help support their employees throughout the month:
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the holiest month of the Islamic calendar; it is observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting to learn about discipline and self-restraint. This year the Muslim holy month of Ramadan is expected to begin during the night of Friday 26th May and will last until June 24th; the date varies every year depending on the first sight of the new moon in the sky and is often not known until a day or so before it is expected to happen. The time when Eid starts also depends on when the new moon is seen.
How can it impact employees at work?
Many Muslims will avoid food and water between sunset and sundown, meaning employees who are observing Ramadan are likely to have more energy earlier in the day. A fair and reasonable employer might consider offering flexible working as an option for the duration of Ramadan.
You could try to organise meetings and conference calls in the morning when employees are likely to be at their most alert, or allow them to work part days in the office combined with remote working later in the day – allowing them to complete work from home after they have broken the fast. However, you should also be mindful that lack of sleep during Ramadan can be a concern. With evening prayers not starting until around 9pm followed by the iftar meal, late nights are a part of Ramadan. Employers should take this into consideration when scheduling early morning meetings.
Depending where in the world you are, the length of the daily fast can vary. Here in the UK it is expected to be around 18 hours so it’s important to be mindful and offer support to employees who are observing the fast.
How should employers prepare?
A key concern for employers is that their business continues to run smoothly while employees are fasting, or working reduced hours. If it is anticipated that Ramadan will be a busy month, employers should take steps to ensure adequate staff cover and/or make arrangements for flexible working hours.
Flexibility, understanding and consideration are the keys to enabling your employees to observe Ramadan whilst maintaining productivity.
Are my employees automatically entitled to time off over Ramadan if they request it?
There is no automatic entitlement for time off due to Ramadan. Your employees should submit their holiday requests in the normal way and you can authorise them according to your usual rules. It would be reasonable to consider giving an employee unpaid leave, if you can accommodate it operationally.
An employee has asked to work different shifts that normal during Ramadan – do I have to say yes?
You are not obliged to allow an employee to work different shifts but you should consider the request in a reasonable manner and accommodate it if you can. Ultimately if it’s not possible for them to change shifts for business reasons then you can say no. If you are unable to grant the request then you should provide reasons for the refusal.
If I say no to time off requests for Ramadan will I face a discrimination claim?
Not unless you have refused the request unreasonably i.e. you have no genuine reason for refusing the time off and/or have deviated from your usual annual leave rules. You have the right to refuse requests if you have clear business reasons for doing so.
Several of my employees are fasting for the month of Ramadan, what can I do to help them and ensure their productivity remains the same?
You should ensure that all your employees receive adequate rest breaks. Although there is technically no obligation, you could consider allowing increased breaks for the period of Ramadan. Some employees may wish to use their rest breaks to pray or break their fast; others may request to change break times in order to coincide with daily prayer times. All requests should be considered as fairly as possible. We recommend being as flexible as possible, as long as the request does not interfere with your business requirements.
I run a transport company and some of my employees are fasting. Do I need to do anything differently this month?
Speak to your employees to ensure they feel supported during Ramadan. You might want to consider doing a risk assessment if their work is manual or they drive for work as they may be feeling weaker, have less energy or be fatigued due to their fast. Perhaps you could see if amended duties will be necessary and/or possible during this period.
Some of my employees have asked for time off over Eid but are unable to give me exact dates. What should I do?
Eid is the festival that marks the end of Ramadan. Because Ramadan is part of a lunar calendar rather than a Gregorian one, the actual day which Eid falls upon is determined by the sighting of the new moon and, therefore, it’s not always possible for employees to be specific about which day/days they would like to take as leave. As an employer you would need to be a bit flexible with this. It might be that employees request two days of annual leave to cover the two possible dates but then only end up taking the one day that Eid actually falls on.
Do I have to consider other religions and their festivals?
Yes. The key is to apply policies equally and consistently. Whilst each request for time off or special arrangements will turn on its own circumstances and business reasons at that time, the best approach is to ensure a neutral policy. It goes without saying, that if, for example, Christian, Pagan or Hindu employees want time off to celebrate religious festivals, their requests should be managed in the same way.
There is no need to be afraid of discrimination claims when you act reasonably, fairly and in line with legitimate business reasons.