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Belgium - managing religious diversity in the workplace

ReferNet Belgium

Dietary restrictions, flexible training schedules, visible symbols… religious beliefs give rise to demands in the workplace, too. Just like in other big cities across Belgium, cultural and religious diversity is part of daily life in Brussels, but is also a challenge for the future. Brussels boasts a multilingual, multireligious population. Almost 10% of its inhabitants are immigrants who came to Belgium less than three years ago. Belgium is therefore a land of self-conscious minorities where each federated entity is a minority that sees itself as being dominated by others. Over the past few years, more and more employers have been faced with workers demanding that their religious beliefs be taken into account.

‘Employees may ask for a flexible timetable that leaves time for prayers, workers may demand halal or kosher food in the canteen, civil servants may wish to wear turbans or hijabs, and sometimes they even want men and women to be kept separate’ explains Patrick Charlier, vice-director of the Interfederal centre for equal opportunities (CIEC).

In principle, decisions should be made and justified according to values of secular democracy, meaning respecting freedom of religion without infringing rights of the majority. Is this always enough, though? How can we deal with religious diversity without stigmatising people or engaging in ethnic-cultural accounting? Should we set up quotas or, on the contrary, tackle the root issue by fighting implicit and explicit prejudice?

Law and politics provide few answers to the question how to manage religious diversity in the workplace. It is for this reason that the Brussels’ centre for intercultural action (Centre Bruxellois d'action interculturelle) joined forces with Cabinet Bouzar expertises and CIEC, to conduct research on managing religious diversity in the workplace. The project led to publication of Diversité convictionnelle: comment l'appréhender, comment la gérer?. Its aim was to devise innovative methods that can succeed where broad political consultation has failed.

A range of proposed solutions includes what Dounia Bouzar, a consultant and co-author of the book, calls ‘systematic sidestepping strategy’. ‘The first step is to determine whether a request is based on religious doctrine’, points out Patrick Charlier. ‘Do one's beliefs truly require that person to pray five times, not to work on the Sabbath, and so on?’ Many companies in this situation seek advice from an imam or rabbi. ‘But it's not up to them to decide what should or should not be done in the workplace’, he adds. Intentions may be good, but ‘communitising’ the issue can lead to dead ends. ‘On the contrary, differences should be neutralised by addressing the same issues in a way that speaks to everybody.’ One idea is to list the ingredients in canteen meals without linking them to any specific religion. After all, food is not necessarily a question of belief, but one of employee wellbeing.

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06/03/2015