Muslims face discrimination in workplace

Era of global religious conflict creates unfair employment practices
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/28/2006

Since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, Muslim Canadians have had problems travelling to the United States and have faced increased prejudices in all aspects of life, especially at work.

The most vulnerable to racism and discrimination are Muslim women who wear the hijab, the religious head scarf that announces to the world that the woman is a practising Muslim, said Faisal Kutty, the general counsel for the Canadian Muslim Civil Liberties Association.

“Right after 9/11 we were getting a lot of calls from people whose employers had previously not had any problem with their praying at work and all of a sudden there was a problem,” said Kutty, who helps Muslims fight discrimination in the workplace.

The Muslim practice of praying during the day showed that the employee was devout, just as the hijab does, and some employers took issue with that, said Kutty.

If an employee reports being told to remove the hijab or being denied time for prayers to the association, Kutty writes a letter to the employer explaining the practice violated the employee’s human rights. The matter is usually resolved immediately, said Kutty.

However, many Muslims who experience discrimination at work don’t come forward, sometimes out of fear of reprisals, he said. Other times, “they haven’t taken it up with us because they don’t want to rock the boat.”

The discrimination is so insidious that even other Muslims are perpetuating it. Kutty recalled the story of a worker telling a female engineer who was applying for a job: “I can tell you as a Muslim, if you take your hijab off, your chances are better.”

Discriminatory hiring practices and workplace racism toward Muslim women are quite common in Toronto, according to a 2001 study by Women Working with Immigrant Women, a non-profit organization that works with immigrant, refugee and minority women.

The study,

“No Hijab is Permitted Here,”

specifically examined the hiring and work practices of the manufacturing, sales and service sectors in the Toronto area.

The project began before 9/11, but the women and representatives from the Muslim community who participated in the study said the situation worsened after the attacks. “To avoid harassment and for their safety, these women were advised to remove their head cover or stay at home,” stated the report.

Of the 32 women surveyed, 29 said that employers had commented on their hijab and 13 women said an employer told them they would have to take the hijab off if they wanted a job.

The study also included a field experiment where three teams of applicants, matched in every way except that one wore the hijab and one didn’t, visited 16 job sites to apply for a job.

At more than half of the sites, the applicant without the hijab was asked to fill out an application or leave a resumé while the applicant with the hijab wasn’t. At 12.5 per cent of the job sites, the woman without the hijab was told there was a job available while the woman with the hijab was told there weren’t any jobs.

However, Women Working with Immigrant Women found some good companies as part of its followup to the 2001 study. In 2004, it released a study of best practices that included profiles of companies with policies that accommodate the needs of Muslims.

One such company, the North York, Ont.,-based window coverings manufacturer Shade-O-Matic, allows Muslim employees to take the necessary time and are given a private space to perform their prayers during the day and during Ramadan, a month-long period of fasting. They are also able to take time off to visit their mosque on Friday afternoons and take a day off on Eid, the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, without pay.

The policies are good for the employees and for the company, said company vice-president Emilio Carinci. “You have more loyal employees. The employees are happy to be working here. They are getting something they would not get at another company.”

He also said that the non-Muslim employees are supportive and willing to move around to fill in production gaps when Muslim employees are away.

Helping other employees understand Muslim practices and beliefs is one of the biggest challenges that companies face, said employment equity consultant Barbara Herring. “People don’t always understand across religions why something is so important to one group,” she said. “I think it’s helpful, with the employee’s permission of course, to do a lunch and learn to explain (Ramadan, daily prayers and the hijab).”

If an employer doesn’t educate the workforce, and ignores any problems among employees around cultural differences, then conflict will arise, she said.

No hijab permitted here

Facing anti-Muslim sentiment

In 2001, Women Working with Immigrant Women conducted the study

“No Hijab is Permitted Here”

to examine the types of discrimination that Muslim women face in the workplace. The following are examples of experiences reported by Muslim women wearing the hijab and comments made by employers.

•Told by an employer that she should remove “head cap.”

•Physical harassment by stomping on prayer mats. When she complained of this treatment, she was fired.

•Told by an employment agency that she should change her name from Mohammed to something else because it would be hard to get a job with that last name.

•While wearing the hijab she was told by an employer that there was not a job available. Then she went back to the same workplace without the hijab and was hired on the spot. She showed up at work wearing the hijab and was fired without a reason.

•Given night shifts that no one else was willing to take.

•“You will make dirty the foods that you handle.”

•“You cannot work in a factory while wearing hijab.”

•“No hijab is permitted here.”

Best practices

Meeting Muslim’s needs

The following are best practices culled from 78 Toronto-area workplaces for the Women Working with Immigrant Women’s followup to

“No Hijab is Permitted Here”


•Anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies with implementation procedures.

•Provision in collective agreement that makes the training of employees on human rights, anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies mandatory, and the posting of policies in the workplace.

•Audio-visual orientation material used to educate new staff regarding anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies and behaviour.

•Provision in collective agreement that gives time off with pay for religious days, other than statutory holidays.

•Verbal agreements for time and space for prayers.

•Verbal agreements for leave to go to one’s mosque.

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