Religious holiday shutdowns

I operate in manufacturing, and we have holiday shutdowns. When there are religious festivals – the most recent being the Muslim festival of Eid – all our workers want the day off. We have 70% ethnic minority staff and as such cannot operate if all these people take the day off. Can they be forced to work, or is this illegal? And if it isn’t, but they refuse to work anyway, how far can they be disciplined?

Answer 1: I believe the safest thing for you to do would be to seek advice from religious organisations – in this case, the Muslim Council for Britain. It was one of the organisations recently given 250,000 by the DTI to raise awareness among its constituency of the Equality in Employment (Religion or Belief) Regulations. My view is that in this type of situation, we need to learn from Muslim countries, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. They must face similar situations to your own, and must find ways to manage.

Answer 2: There is no legal right to time off for religious festivals. If workers want to take it out of their annual leave, then that is fine. You need to make the company policy clear about this stance, so that they are not under any illusions. If you want to limit the number of people taking the time off, then you may have to get them to ‘draw lots’ as long as you ‘act reasonably and fairly’, then you cannot be criticised. As for disciplinary action, I would treat it as absence without leave, and dock a day’s pay as you would for anyone who takes unauthorised days off. If you have 70% ethnic minority employees, you may need to make some of their religious holidays a shutdown period.

Answer 3: Our company is in a similar position. We usually allow all employees who request the day off to take it and the remaining staff undertake yearly maintenance of machines, etc. Acas supplies a Religion or Belief and the Workplace handbook, which I have found very useful.
Job-share paid holiday entitlement.

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