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Cultural sensitivity - John C. Kirk

Sep. 30th, 2008

05:27 pm - Cultural sensitivity

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Last year, I wrote about the case of a Muslim woman who sued for religious discrimination after she was turned down for a job. I missed the verdict at the time, but in June she was awarded £4000 compensation. (Source: BBC News.) I think that's crazy, and I wonder what kind of precedent it will set.

Today I read about another case: Mohammed Ahmed is suing Tesco for religious discrimination. He worked as a forklift operator in the warehouse and they expected him to handle boxes containing alcohol, which he says is against his religious beliefs as a Muslim. (I read about this in The Metro; there's a similar report in The Telegraph, and BBC News have a video about it.)

I think the first issue here is whether Mr Ahmed is correct about Islamic law. I'm hardly an expert, but I think there's an important distinction between drinking alcohol and handling it. There was an article in The Times last year on a similar issue (Muslim checkout staff get an alcohol opt-out clause), where the director of the Muslim institute said that it was ok for Muslims to sell alcohol over the counter.

Still, let's assume for the sake of argument that he's correct. Where do you draw the line on an issue like this? For instance, if I moved house, and hired a removal firm to carry all my stuff down to the van in boxes, would it be a problem if I had alcohol in one of those boxes? If necessary, I could carry that box into the van myself, but would it then be a problem for a Muslim to drive the van? Is that significantly different from driving a forklift that's loaded with boxes of alcohol? Or how about driving a bus/train/taxi, when passengers may be carrying alcohol back from the supermarket?

I also wonder what Tesco could have done differently. They don't have detailed job descriptions on their Careers website, but I don't think it would be practical for them to provide an exhaustive list of all products that might need to be moved in boxes. So, suppose that this issue had come up during his job interview, and he said "Sorry, as a Muslim I can't do that", so they didn't hire him. Would that be the same as the Noah/Desrosiers case, where he'd still be able to sue them?

Ultimately, if people feel that they can't do a particular job because of their personal beliefs, I can respect that, even if I don't share the beliefs. For instance, when I did a paper round in Durham, I only worked Monday-Saturday, so I was paid £8/week rather than £10/week. If the shopkeeper had said that it was all or nothing, I would have accepted that, and gone somewhere else. (I've since relaxed my views about working on Sundays.) However, if people then start claiming discrimination because they refuse to do a job, I lack sympathy; in cases like this, I think they're giving Muslims a bad name, and fuelling right-wing propaganda. So, the people I really feel sorry for are the sensible Muslims (e.g. some of my friends/colleagues) who get linked to these idiots.

Edit: The tribunal ruled in favour of Tesco. (Source: ThisIsDerbyshire, 29-Oct-2008.)

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From:ext_5743
Date:September 30th, 2008 07:25 pm (UTC)
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That's an interesting question, and comes across in other contexts, too. Would you, as a vegetarian, be able to reasonably object to carrying boxes of meat? Would it make any difference if your vegetarianism was on religious grounds (if you'd become a Buddhist, say)?
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From:johnckirk
Date:September 30th, 2008 08:48 pm (UTC)
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From a legal point of view, I'm guessing that it does make a difference, i.e. a Buddhist could claim religious discrimination whereas I couldn't. (Personally, I wouldn't object to carrying meat, but I prefer not to wear leather, which has been an issue with the SJA uniform.)

I think that all personal beliefs should be treated alike, whether they're religious or not. That then avoids the question of religions vs cults, i.e. you don't have to decide which religions are officially recognised. It also means that people can't start making up their own religions to claim compensation. ("I'm a pastafarian - I worship the flying spaghetti monster, so it would offend my god if I touched boxes of noodles.")
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From:rileen
Date:October 2nd, 2008 09:09 pm (UTC)
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This reminded me of how some middle-eastern airlines which do not serve pork "because of religious beliefs" have no qualms about serving alcohol. Clearly one belief is more affordable than the other :-)

Just one of several examples which show that handling and consumption are decidedly different for many Muslims. How about drugs in Afghanistan?
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