In France, When Islam Enters The Workplace

Both private and public French organizations are trying to strike the right balance between respecting beliefs among Muslim employees and keeping company welfare in mind.

In France, When Islam Enters The Workplace
Audrey Tonnelier

PARIS â€" While the government hopes to improve "the detection of radicalization in companies," the business world didn't wait for the tragic Nov. 13 terrorist attacks to address religious issues in the workplace.

"The first company guides appeared in the mid-2000s in public sector groups, American companies or companies that were strongly established in certain neighborhoods," explains Sophie Gherardi, head of the Contemporary Religion Study Center, a specialized think tank.

But the matter has taken on new and more sobering proportions over the past few years. In April, almost a quarter of managers (23%) said that they were confronted with a religious issue at least once per month in their companies, almost twice as much as in 2014 (12%), according to annual survey carried out by the Observatory for Religion in Companies.

"Most situations are easily manageable, but contentious cases or ones that could be viewed as obstructive have doubled in a year, from 3% to 6%," says Lionel Honoré, head of the observatory. Gherardi adds, "In the vast majority of cases, the issues concern Muslim people."


Historically, car manufacturers were the first concerned. Prayer rooms were created in French factories following strikes in the 1980s. "Today, the same names still reappear: Air France, Paris Airports (ADP), the Autonomous Operator of Parisian Transports (RATP)," says Jean-Louis Malys, national secretary of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor.

"It's not a company issue but more of a social one," Honoré says. "Companies aren't outside society. The ones that run into situations of excess, located on the outskirts of large cities, often employ low-skilled workers in the transport, logistics, construction, cleaning or food-processing sectors."

Amid current political and security realities, these groups prefer to keep a low profile. RATP found itself at the center of unwanted attention during the week that followed the Paris attacks, after daily newspaper Le Parisien reported that it was among the companies that had the most employees targeted by Fiche S, an indicator used by French law enforcement to flag individuals considered to be linked to terrorism. The public company appeals to its charter of secularism but still needs to convince employees internally. "We pretend to believe the problem has been solved," a former executive says anonymously. "The reality is that managers in contact with radicalized individuals are left on their own to handle these kind of things in bus depots."

Problems also exist in private companies. In Toulouse, a computer engineer at the IT services company Micropole Univers was fired for refusing to remove her headscarf when she came to work for her client. Since April, she's been awaiting a verdict from the Court of Justice of the European Union.

"Problems remain marginal, but they create significant tension when they appear," says Nicolas Cadène, of the Observatory of Secularism, which published a guide last year about management of religion in private companies. "Hence the necessity for prevention."

In France, the issue is complex for private companies. Unlike public service, where religious neutrality is the rule, in the private sector, "the 1905 law on secularism guarantees freedom of conscience, including for religion," Cadène says. There are limits, though, to ensure respect for others and the organization. "Wearing a religious symbol is often OK, but disrupting the functioning of the company or infringing on employees' assignments is not."


To head off problems or solve them, he says it's important to refer to objective criteria "Notifying an employee that a very long beard is not hygienic to serve food in a canteen, for instance, is proper, as is forbidding the distribution of leaflets promoting anti-gay-marriage protests. The person's job has to inform the judgment. An employee working in the meat department of a supermarket can't refuse to handle pork," he says.

Most often, pragmatism is the best solution. In the case of a warehouse of the supermarket chain Super U, in Montpellier, where employees asked a few months ago that they not be asked to prepare packages containing alcoholic products or pork, logic prevailed. "Solutions were found thanks to an imam, who explained to the employees that, if it was to earn a living and they didn't consume these products, they could handle them," a source at the distributor says.

At Bouygues Construction, a traditional headdress is not a problem as long as it fits under the hardhat. At BNP Paribas, there are also no restrictions on wearing a headscarf or a kippah, "except for the employees who are in direct contact with customers, who are required to have neutral clothing, devoid of religious signs," says Barbara Levéel, the bank's head of diversity.

As for Orange, it has set up scheduling systems for employees to be able to take days off during religious holidays, and people who wish to fast can also make schedule arrangements. ADP allows religious practices during breaks and has opened five spiritual centers, designed for both the passengers of the Roissy and Orly airports and their employees.

"The idea is to find the right balance by meeting employees demands but without forgetting about the general interest," Cadène explains. Opening communal prayer rooms to all religions, for example, is a practical solution, as is establishing menus without meat, which would suit Muslims, Jews and vegetarians alike.

Lionel Honoré, from the observatory, would like things to be more firm. "We're still struggling to punish radical behaviors, because they scare people," he says. "A person who doesn't take off her veil in front of a customer will be punished, while an employee who refuses to work in the same room as a woman will sometimes just be the subject of a change of position," the researcher says with regret. The challenge is serious, he notes. "The good functioning of a company is at risk, but also the freedom of all the employees, for whom professional life comes before the practice of religion."

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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