Religion at work, squaring the circle

“Infrabel provides places of worship for Muslim SNCB employees” wrote the Bulletin in 2015. After tis announce, the reactions were very emotional. Why do these measures provoke such hostility ? Isn’t it a step towards more social inclusion ? The problem is that for some people, social inclusion means adapting work for everybody. But others people think the opposite, that egalitarian treatment should always prevails over special ones.

Prayer CC BY Muhammad Rehan

 

At Unia, the Interfederal Center for Equal Opportunities, they “hear lots of unreasonable things about reasonable accommodations” *. For the public organization, the problem is the lack of information and clarity in the debate.

Indeed, in the Infrabel case, the “reality was disturbed”, as Frederic Sacré said. The newspaper wrote that the public railway company provided prayer rooms for Muslim employees, which is not exactly the truth according to their spokesperson. “We have received one specific demand, an employee wanted to be allowed to pray in a unused points cabin.” Sacré explained.

In this case the fundamental freedom of religion allowed this employee to pray in his workplace because it was during his breaks and, most importantly, it wasn’t in a common room with the other employees.

 

As with Infrabel’s management, every company has to weigh up pros and cons in these kinds of situations. Are the accommodations financially affordable? Do they run counter to work productivity ? The decisions are up to the bosses. If an employee observes Ramadan, his boss can decide that it’s dangerous for him to work and fast at the same time. But the worry has to be well-founded, if it’s not, the decision go against the right to privacy.

No law regulates accommodations under religious reasons in the anti-discrimination law. For now, only people with disabilities can sue companies which don’t accept accommodations.

The fear of increasing discriminations

Edouard Delruelle, president of Unia, the inter federal center for equal opportunities, asked the public during a debate if “put the reasonable accommodations into the anti-discrimination law can’t make us forget its primary goal, living together in peace and tolerance ? ” Between the lines, Delruelle shared his worry that automatic accommodations lead to other discriminations.

And this is real that the boundary between secularity and discrimination is blurred and the topic is touchy especially in Wallonia, the French speaking part where French influence is important.

One detail is particularly significant : how  the french speaking call these measures. They make a difference between “aménagements raisonnables”- which are the measures for workers with disabilities that companies cannot refuse in respect of anti-discrimination law – and “accommodements raisonnables” for religious or others reasons. In Flemish and in English, the term is unique : reasonable accommodation.

In this context, Belgian justice seems to think that the case by case examination is the best option. That’s why Unia has created Ediv, an e-learning website for each person who can be confronted with these situations. They present for several concrete situations the legal framework and and always ask for a balanced answer.

According to Unia, the most common reasonable accommodations requests concern the days off for religious celebrations, the dress-code (mainly the headscarf) and finally the prayers at work.

All these personal adjustments can be regarded as less obstacles on the way to a fringe of the population to work- but companies seem to be shy when the moment comes for them to justify their choices, as ashamed to offer the best working conditions to employees regarding their personal thought.

* A reasonable accommodation is an adjustment made in a system to accommodate or make fair the same system for an individual based on a proven need. (wikipedia)

 

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