All of us, as unionists, campaign against poverty, but few unionists go to the lengths of fasting to express our solidarity with the hungry. Few of us, that is, other than our Muslim brothers and sisters.
“I could go into the back room right now and eat a bag of chips, and no one would know,” says Awale, an OHS Officer who is currently observing Ramadan. “Except Iwould know, and that’s why you don’t do it.”
In an increasingly secular society such as ours, time is rarely set aside for reflection and self-discipline. Those religious practices that we do notice are often visible from the outside and performed as part of a group. Ramadan, as Awale explains it, is a private thing. It is about one’s individual relationship with God, and Muslims are mindful of it throughout the entire holy month. But of course, that means a third party inevitably gets involved: your boss.
For many workers in Australia and around the world, this is a minefield to be navigated every year. The dates vary, but usually in April/May, your Muslim brothers and sisters are celebrating Ramadan. Though it is a time of great joy and celebration, it isn’t without its difficulties.
In many predominantly Muslim countries, whole workplaces will do shorter hours during the month of fasting (or sawm). “It’s much easier when everyone is doing it,” says Awale, who lived in Saudi Arabia for a time. “You just don’t see people eating during daylight hours at all, so it’s easy to forget about food. But obviously it’s different here.”
Even in Australia, Muslim-run businesses often accommodate the requirements of the holiday. Hassan, also currently fasting, sends his children to a Muslim-owned and operated childcare centre which closes an hour early during Ramadan.
“I was lucky in my last job,” says Awale. “I worked the morning shift anyway, so I started at 6 and finished at 2:30. Shift changes can be a good way to manage Ramadan - like if you could work night shift and sleep for the fasting period - but not everyone has that option.”
A Blessed (and Healthy, and Safe) Ramadan
“Sometimes I would start to feel dizzy on the factory floor,” says Hassan. He laments that he hasn’t had time for a pre-dawn coffee in four days and it’s starting to get to him.
“Bosses don’t usually like it,” he says. “Ideally you would be put on lighter duties, but some places just aren’t flexible at all.”
Under the OHS Act (2004) employers have a responsibility to “provide and maintain for employees of the employer a working environment that is safe and without risks to health.” Inherent to this is the responsibility to provide access to drinking water and regular meal breaks because dehydration and hunger are significant health and safety risks. But what if a worker can’t eat or drink for a period of time? Well, we can take a look at our old friend the hierarchy of controls.
To avoid the risks of dehydration, there are many lower order controls that can be utilised to allow workers to practice their beliefs safely. Engineering controls such as plant and machinery that eases excessive manual handling. Also making every effort to reduce sweating by keeping the workplace cool, if possible. Admin controls like rotating through lighter duties and taking regular breaks. (Muslim workers will often use breaks during Ramadan to read the Quran, since meals aren’t being taken.) And sometimes, PPE can do more harm than good. Excessive PPE, especially if hazards are controlled with other measures, often does little more than make you sweat more. Be smart with PPE, not rigid.
Another section of the Act is less complicated: section 35. The duty to consult with workers is incumbent on all employers, and the specifics of working during Ramadan are a perfect example of something that each workplace needs to navigate on its own. Overarching regulations in this area would be impractical, but there could absolutely be something like a Ramadan Working Group or a Multicultural Subcommittee if you love workplace structures like we do.
But neither Hassan or Awale have heard of anything like that happening. Usually, you’re forced to just power through.
“The most important thing is not to harm yourself,” says Awale. There are exceptions for fasting, like for children and the elderly, or if you’re sick or menstruating. “You should never be pushed to the limit of starvation or dehydration. So if you are at work and you really need to eat or drink something, you can.”
But of course many would prefer not to, which is why open lines of communication are so important. We know that this is not the reality for many workers.
Many migrant workers celebrate the holy month and observe the sawm, and we know that many of these workers are also employed in insecure work. Speaking up about your needs can be hard enough at any time throughout the year, let alone when you have extra considerations to make for a period of time.
Muslim workers shouldn’t have to choose between their faith and their ability to provide for themselves and their families. Many Christian traditions are woven into the fabric of our economy, like the sanctity of Sundays and the Easter long weekend. So why not some consideration for workers observing Ramadan? All workplaces should allow some degree of flexibility, regardless of its purpose.
Not Just One Month
Muslim workers don’t just practice their religion for one month of the year. There are obviously varying degrees of adherence throughout the community, but many Muslims do follow the decree requiring prayer five times a day. There are practicalities involved in this that need to be considered and workplaces need to be cooperative. For instance, there needs to be a quiet and private place for these prayers to take place.
“If there’s a mosque nearby, that’s great, but there isn’t always,” says Awale. “Some workplaces provide spaces, but many just don’t care.”
Some workplaces have achieved Cultural and Ceremonial Leave entitlements in their Enterprise Agreements, which can be utilised during the month of Ramadan or any other time of the year. The EBA can be a great place to secure things like prayer rooms and other cultural considerations.
As always, there’s the law and there’s what you can win for yourselves through collective power. Talk to your union delegate today if you feel like things could be easier for you to observe and practice your religious or cultural rites.