In the world of work in the UK there have been many decided cases and much official guidance to employers to the collective effect that if they respect the third of Mr Butler’s list, the Employment Tribunal will let them keep the other two. So why the uproar around Marks & Spencer last week, given its (brief) decision to sacrifice them both in order to avoid infringing the “rights” of a Muslim checkout employee who declined to serve a customer buying alcohol?
Because the store’s transient suggestion that checkout staff could determine on grounds of religion or belief what product (and by extension, which customers) they are prepared to deal with was clearly bonkers. Because the last thing any customer will risk is standing in line at one till only to be told that he has to use another because of the Marsala in his tiramisu. Because it would be commercial suicide, deeply divisive and above all, completely unnecessary, as M&S now agrees after several minutes’ heartfelt reflection.
Leaving those mere bagatelles aside, how much weight can stores like M&S and Sainsburys attach to the “standard” or “official” view of whether Islam can be read as prohibiting not just consumption of pork and alcohol products, but also the handling of things containing them? Influential figures in the Muslim world have been quick to dismiss the view that this is the case or therefore that a shop assistant should effectively have a right of veto on such grounds. Sainsbury’s policy on the point is set out in a “Little Book of Faith” issued by its HR department following consultation with religious organisations and community groups. This dictates that no staff, regardless of religion, are exempt from the requirement to handle pork and alcohol products.
However, we know from the British Airways crucifix case, the homosexuals-in-guest-houses saga and (most recently) the Sunday working case that every religion has its fundamentalist wing, those who read something into their beliefs which the great majority of adherents to the same religion do not. Mba made it clear that once the genuineness of the employee’s belief in a particular requirement (here, not to handle alcohol) was established as genuine, it is not up to the employer to decide that statistically or officially, that belief was not “core” and could therefore be ignored.
So in this case the question is not whether the benighted employee in question was adopting an extreme interpretation of Islam, but whether she was doing so genuinely (which seems undisputed) and thus whether M&S was striking the right balance between its rights and hers in having her on the tills.
The answer, quite clearly, is yes and no. If it could deploy her elsewhere (to Clothing or Bakery, it suggested), then it should do so. Perhaps “should have done so”, though in fairness to M&S, the assumption has to be that the relevant supervisor was unaware of the strength of the employee’s convictions in this respect. If, even knowing of them, he/she still put this particular assistant on the tills, then I imagine that M&S management must wish him/her a thoroughly rotten New Year. However, if M&S cannot redeploy the individual elsewhere then it must have the right to require all its checkout employees to handle all the products it sells, and if their religion gets in the way of that, they would have to expect to be asked to leave.
And on that cheery note, our thanks to all the readers of this blog for your patronage over the last twelve months and our best wishes for the Festive Season.