Despite the United Arab Emirates (UAE) having a population where close to 80% of the workforce consist of non-UAE nationals and where the ethnic make-up of that workforce is so diverse, the Islamic traditions, customs and cultural practices that underlie the State are a prominent feature of everyday life. For employers in particular, religious observances such as Ramadan raise two competing interests: business continuity and performance on the one hand and cultural sensitivities on the other. Both require careful consideration from a legal and practical perspective.
- During the month of Ramadan, the eight hour day, forty eight hour week ‘working time’ rule is reduced;
- Forward planning will be key to ensure customer demand and business performance is maintained during the holy month;
- A Ramadan policy will go some way to ensuring transparency and appropriate standards of behaviour so as to avoid offending fasting employees.
Ramadan is regarded as a holy month by Muslims as it is the month in which the Quran was revealed by Allah to the Prophet Muhammad PBUH. Its commencement is based on the sighting of the new moon. During Ramadan, Muslims practice and exercise self-control, a key facet of which is the abstinence from food and drink that is prescribed to all able Muslims during the hours of sunrise to sunset. Although Muslims fast during other times of the year, Ramadan is the only occasion where fasting is mandatory during the course of an entire month.
The month of Ramadan is followed by Eid Al Fitr. The private sector is usually granted two days holiday for this, which may or may not overlap with a weekend, depending on the lunar month.
The importance of Ramadan should therefore be acknowledged and respected by all employers and employees operating or working within the UAE.
The Law in Practice
Federal Law No 8 of 1980, as amended (the Labour Law) imposes an obligation on the employer not to require non-excluded categories of employees to work more than eight hours per day, forty eight hours per week. However, during the month of Ramadan, working hours shall be reduced by two. There is often confusion over whether only Muslims benefit from the reduced working hours rule or if its applicability extends to non-Muslims as well. The relevant provisions of the Labour Law (which are applicable to the various free zones) make it clear that the reduced working hours provision is not nationality or religion-specific. In contrast, the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), which is subject to its own legal regime, entitles only those employees who are "observing the fast" to benefit from the reduced working hours rule during Ramadan.
For many employers, a primary concern will be the impact of the reduced working hours rule on business performance. Adherence to the Labour Law is, of course, recommended but employers can still (and often do) adopt a pragmatic stance. For example, if there is urgent work to be completed which is subject to an imminent deadline, then it could, within reason, be an acceptable practice to request employees remain at their place of work until completion of the assignment in question. However, in such cases, a distinction should always be drawn between the following categories of employees, in order of priority:
- Muslims observing the fast - who fall within the top-end of the scale and should accordingly be permitted to stop work at the end of their statutory 6-hour day and not be asked to work overtime during Ramadan;
- non-fasting Muslims - who, although they should likewise be permitted to enjoy the full benefit of the reduced working day, fall within the middle-end of the scale; and
- non-Muslims - who fall into the lower-end of the scale. That said, they should not ordinarily be asked to do overtime during Ramadan. If overtime work is, for any reason, unavoidable, then they should be paid at the rates set out in the Labour Law.
In so far as employees holding managerial, professional or supervisory positions are concerned, they are during Ramadan (much like other times of the year) expected to fulfil their obligations to their employer and, in the case of both fasting and non-fasting Muslims (as well as non-Muslims), this may mean returning late to the office (such as after Iftar). Such employees may, in any event, have chosen in the past to work their full hours during Ramadan in order to complete their assignments/work in full.
It is, in principle, unlawful to require employees who have been allowed to go home early in recognition of the shorter Ramadan working hours rule to return later in the day to complete a second "shift" in order to make up a full 8 hour day. For example, if a retail outlet needs to be kept open to take advantage of the custom of late night shopping during Ramadan, then advance planning will be necessary in order to meet business needs. This could include a proper organisation of employee rotas, the involvement of non-Muslim employees only and paying statutory overtime rates in respect of all hours worked beyond the 6-hour Ramadan working day.
It must also be borne in mind that the reduced working hours rule imposed during Ramadan under the Labour Law does not result in a corresponding reduction in salary. Such a practice would be illegal.
Recommended behaviour during Ramadan
Employers should, if they have not already done so, implement a comprehensive Ramadan policy, setting out clearly not only the relevant provisions of the Labour Law (including employee entitlements), but the recommended and expected standards of behaviour and conduct during Ramadan so as to minimise the risks of causing offense to those observing the fast.
It is recommended that everyone refrains from eating, drinking or smoking in shared areas during the fasting period. If an individual does wish to drink, eat or smoke, they should be advised to do so discreetly and certainly not in public places. Office visitors should not be encouraged to indulge in food or beverages during Ramadan.
Additionally, it is not advisable to ask someone who is fasting to organise or serve food or drinks during Ramadan (e.g. during meetings).
Business throughout the UAE inevitably slows down during Ramadan. Clients and/or customers who are based overseas (such as in Europe) are unlikely to appreciate this and it is therefore advisable to inform them of this sufficiently in advance of Ramadan.
Out of respect for Islam and the traditions of the UAE, employers should also endeavour to ensure that life in the workplace moves at a gentler pace during Ramadan. As highlighted above, however, employers are still entitled to expect that work assignments be completed in a timely and professional manner in any event.
Finally, employers should inform their employees of the agreed arrangements pertaining to office hours during the month of Ramadan a few days prior to its commencement. A short email circular or other form of written notification would suffice.
There are a number of steps which can help employers ensure that their employees are fully apprised of the religious significance of Ramadan, the expected standards of behaviour as well as their own rights and entitlements, under the Labour Law, during the holy month in question. It is equally important, however, for non-nationals to enjoy and share in the celebrations and festivities which, for some, will be their first such cultural experience in the region.