CAIRO – British Muslim workers in retail supermarkets have been facing troubles recently after refusing to handle pork or alcohol sales during Christmas season.
“I had one bottle of champagne, and the lady, who was wearing a headscarf, was very apologetic but said she could not serve me,” one customer at Marks & Spencer (M&S) London store, who declined to be named, told The Sunday Telegraph on December 22.
The customer’s case occurred last week when a Muslim checkout worker asked customers waiting with goods that included pork or alcohol to wait until another till became available.
The assistant was extremely apologetic at having to ask customers to wait.
“She told me to wait until another member of staff was available,” he said.
“I was taken aback. I was a bit surprised. I’ve never come across that before.”Accommodating its Muslim workers, M&S have given them a permission to refuse to serve customers buying alcohol or pork products.
“We recognize that some of our employees practice religions that restrict the food or drink they can handle, or that mean they cannot work at certain times,” a Marks & Spencer (M&S) spokesman
“M&S promotes an environment free from discrimination and so, where specific requests are made, we will always make reasonable adjustments to accommodate them, whilst ensuring high levels of customer service.”
The new policy would be applied throughout its 700-plus stores. M&S spokesman added that the policy of tolerance applied to other religions, as Christians who did not want to work on Sundays and religious Jews who chose not to work on Saturdays would also be excused.
“This is something we decide on a case-by-case basis,” the spokesman added.
Islam takes an uncompromising stand in prohibiting intoxicants. It forbids Muslims from drinking or even selling alcohol.
The general rule in Islam is that any beverage that get people intoxicated when taken is unlawful, both in small and large quantities, whether it is alcohol, drugs, fermented raisin drink or something else.
Muslims do not eat pork and consider pigs and their meat filthy and unhealthy to eat.
The new M&S policy decision has highlighted a split among the big food retailers over whether religious staff should be excused certain jobs.
In contrast to M&S, Sainsbury’s said it had issued official guidelines that stated there was no reason why staff who did not drink alcohol or eat pork for religious reasons could not handle the goods.
“We have guidelines in place that set out the requirements and beliefs of different religions, which we have previously discussed and agreed with religious organizations and community groups,” a Sainsbury’s spokesman said.
“We treat everyone fairly, so although our colleagues on tills or replenishing stock will be asked to handle alcohol and meat, we will always work closely with individuals to ensure we are inclusive and fair to all.”
He added that Sainsbury’s guidance advises that all staff, regardless of religious beliefs, are able to handle meat and alcohol.
“If a [religious] belief involves not eating or drinking something in particular, they can still handle the food or drink as part of their job,” said a Sainsbury’s source.
The supermarket added that it would consult on a “case-by-case basis” if need be.
Tesco shared a similar opinion, asserting to it treated each case on its merits, but said it “made no sense” to employ staff on a till who refused to touch certain items for religious reasons.
“We don’t have a specific policy and take a pragmatic approach if a colleague raises concerns about a job they have been asked to do,” a Tesco spokesperson said.
“It would not make sense to have somebody on the till if they cannot handle certain items.”
Based in Bradford, where there is a large Muslim community, Morrisons supported Muslims’ right to opt out of serving alcohol.
“We would respect and work around anyone’s wishes not to handle specific products for religious or cultural reasons, regardless of the time of year,” a Morrisons spokesman said.
The retail supermarket added that it had widespread experience of dealing with the issue and would “respect and work around anyone’s wishes not to handle specific products for religious or cultural reasons”.
The division has recalled an earlier report issued in 2005 by the Muslim Council for Britain and the former Department of Trade and Industry which considered the example of a devout Muslim asked to work on the meat section of a supermarket.
The official guidance concludes: “If you feel that you cannot handle pork as a Muslim, then you should discuss this with your manager.
“A policy that all staff must work in the meat section of the supermarket may amount to indirect discrimination since it disadvantages Muslims.
“Your employer should try and accommodate your request where possible.”
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