Ramadan in the workplace: accommodating diversity

Ramadan in the workplace: accommodating diversity

The Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan is now drawing towards its close. The duration of the month depends on the lunar calendar, and therefore varies somewhat each year. The start and end of Ramadan depends upon the sighting of the moon. However, whereas in ancient times it was really necessary to be able to sight the moon in order to announce the start and end of the month, nowadays there are modern, worldwide methods of such timing, although traditional announcements are still made.

In 2019, the commencement of Ramadan was on 5 May, and the end will be on 4 June, followed by the festival of Eid-ul-Fitr. Islam originated in what is now Western Saudi Arabia, whereas today there are Muslims throughout the world, on every continent. Accordingly, the exact timings related to Ramadan could vary in different places.

Ramadan is the traditional fasting month. From dawn to dusk, strict Muslims consume no food or water, and observe the designated times of prayer, five per day, with particular strictness. This is a very arduous experience, especially in tropical countries and even more particularly when Ramadan coincides with the hottest time of year.

There are exceptions to the religious requirement for fasting since Islam is conceived as a benevolent religion. The first exemption, however, relates to times of warfare, as applied during the early years of expansion of Islam across Arabia, Africa and Asia. Warriors were not constrained to fast, because such a practice would inhibit their conquering ability.

Furthermore, children and the elderly, as well as the sick, are exempted from fasting, and this extends to pregnant women. Beyond these exemptions, privileges can be extended to travellers. This was intended originally to apply to those crossing the desert on camel trains. But modern travellers sometimes indulge themselves despite the comfort of up-to-date travel facilities.

Ramadan in the modern world

The practice of Ramadan originated with Islam itself, over 1,300 years ago. Life and living conditions differed from today, but the traditions of Ramadan persist largely unmodified. Therefore one has to relate the practices of historic Ramadan to these modern conditions.

Strict Muslims are required to be compliant, but not exaggerated in their observance. They should observe the hours to commence and to end the daily fasting period but not exceed these times, which would be considered indicative of fanaticism. Some Muslims keep a container of water beside them, so that they can end their fast immediately on the call for ending, originally announced by the imam from the minaret beside the mosque, but nowadays also broadcast on radio, television and even mobile phone.

Despite the hardships of fasting during Ramadan, Muslims are expected to play their full part in the daily life of the communities where they live, including those where they are in the minority.

It is, of course, necessary to ensure the safety of those working in the community, and those alongside them. Since they may be considered travellers, bus, train drivers and airline pilots could be exempted from strict observance. Inevitably those involved in warfare or security operations might also be included in exemptions. But what of those working in factories, offices, public services and other places of regular employment?

Ramadan in the workplace

In the predominantly Muslim countries, such as those in the Middle East, North Africa, many countries in sub-Sahara Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia, special arrangements usually prevail during Ramadan.

Many workers have work-days limited to mornings, when they are still alert and active, but may be allowed part-time working conditions in the afternoons. In some Middle Eastern countries, the normal working day allows for long midday rest periods, offset by evening working. These conditions were instituted in the days before air-conditioning, when midday hours were characterised by hot, humid periods when it was difficult to work. Such conditions have changed, but traditions have not always changed alongside modernity.

However, for many workers in mainly Muslim countries, as well as Muslims in non-Muslim societies, provisions need to be made to make Ramadan observance compatible with full participation in regular work routines.

Making Ramadan Supportable

Many countries, especially in Europe, but also in parts of sub-Sahara Africa and even in East Asia and Australasia, now have substantial Muslim minorities within their non-Muslim societies.

Human Resource Management therefore needs to consider how to provide for creation of harmony in religious observance along with industrial efficiency. The requirement for compromise often goes beyond good industrial relations. Several countries now have legal codes which outlaw discrimination on the basis of gender, race and religion. Refusal to provide for the observance of religious rules can result in offences against anti-discriminatory legislation. Accordingly companies need to understand the requirements of different religions in order to avoid accusations of discrimination.

Since fasting is likely to reduce alertness, concentration and efficiency, provisions need to be made for these factors in measuring performance and compliance with safety provisions. This could mean modification of tasks, especially during afternoon periods.

Muslims are constrained to undertake prayer at five designated periods during the day, some of which fall within working hours. These requirements are not specific to Ramadan, but prevail throughout the year. However many Muslims are likely to become more observant during Ramadan than at other times of the year.

Companies should provide separate prayer rooms for Muslim employees, normally divided for male and female worshippers. Since there are normally established rest periods prescribed during the working day, these need to be adjusted to provide for prayer times. Organisations in majority Muslim countries normally provide for these requirements as a regular practice. However all organisations employing Muslim staff should provide such facilities, in order to avoid accusations of discrimination.

All countries prescribe rest days, public holidays and normal holiday entitlement. However, most non-Muslim countries do not provide any special holidays at the times of major Muslim festivals. Muslim employees should be allowed to take these festival days as part of their statutory holiday periods, and be encouraged to do so.

Some jurisdictions are now providing for the option of flexible working hours. This may mean varying working hours, or else working outside the regular workplaces. Evidently it is much easier in such cases to provide for special Ramadan working hours. In the case of shift-working, it can even be possible to provide for night work, during which no fasting will be required at all whereas during the day-time, workers would be resting anyway.

Ramadan Observance in Thailand

More general provision and observance of privileges for Muslim traditions are necessary in South Thailand, where a majority of Muslim employees are located, with stricter observance of religious practices.

Moreover, Thai companies that set up business in other countries, such as Malaysia, Brunei or Indonesia, as well as in South Asia and the Middle East need to be aware of the traditions of the countries where they establish themselves. They should take the initiative in providing for observance of Muslim traditions, rather than being oblivious of traditions and have to be reminded of them by local employees. Operating in a global environment does not only mean adopting global conventions, but also assiduously complying with the traditions of the rich panoply of diverse faiths.

Author: Christopher F. Bruton, Executive Director, Dataconsult Ltd, chris@dataconsult.co.th. Dataconsult's Thailand Regional Forum provides seminars and extensive documentation to update business on future trends in Thailand and in the Mekong Region.

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