Marks & Spencer’s policy to allow staff not to handle food items prohibited by their religious beliefs has brought to light a split between major supermarkets over this issue.
The M&S policy allows Muslims working at its stores not to serve alcohol or pork products. It also covers the religious requirements of staff members from other faiths, allowing Jews not to handle pork or work on Saturdays while Christians are not required to work on Sundays if they wish.
A spokesperson from Marks & Spencer said: “M&S promotes an environment free from discrimination and so, where specific requests are made, we will always make reasonable adjustments to accommodate them, whilst ensuring high levels of customer service.”
The company made headlines last month when a Muslim worker on the till in a central London branch of the store politely asked a customer buying alcohol to wait until another till was free. The customer told the Daily Telegraph: “I had one bottle of champagne, and the lady, who was wearing a headscarf, was very apologetic but said she could not serve me.
“She told me to wait until another member of staff was available.”
In a press release on December 23 M&S apologised for “any resulting confusion” from the incident. It revealed that staff who did not wish to handle certain food items would be placed in other departments.
The statement read: “M&S offers an inclusive, secular environment for employees and customers, working closely with any employee with religious beliefs of any denomination that restrict specific food or drink handling. We aim to manage this so that all employees work in departments that allow them to offer great customer service at all times. Requests are considered on a case by case basis and may lead to an individual working in a department where conflicts wouldn’t arise, such as in clothing or bakery in foods.
“This policy has been successfully implemented over many years and does not compromise our ability to offer the highest level of customer service.”
Morrison’s too stated that they would “respect and work around anyone’s wishes not to handle specific products for religious or cultural reasons.” Asda claimed that its Muslim staff would not be asked to work on the till if they could not handle alcohol. The food retailer said that it did not “have such a policy in place, but if any colleague had a serious concern about anything then we’d look at that on a case-by-case basis.”
Tesco too revealed that it did not have a particular policy related to the issue in place, but a spokesperson from the supermarket said: “It would not make sense to have somebody on the till if they cannot handle certain items.”
Sainsbury’s insisted that their guidelines state that alcohol and meat can be handled by all members of staff. A spokesman from Sainbury’s said: “We have guidelines in place that set out the requirements and beliefs of different religions, which we have previously discussed and agreed with religious organisations and community groups.”
He added: “We treat everyone fairly, so although our colleagues on tills or replenishing stock will be asked to handle alcohol and meat, we will always work closely with individuals to ensure we are inclusive and fair to all.”
In a report issued by the Muslim Council for Britain and the former Department of Trade and Industry in 2005 set out the following guidance should a Muslim be asked to work in a supermarket’s meat section: “If you feel that you cannot handle pork as a Muslim, then you should discuss this with your manager.
“A policy that all staff must work in the meat section of the supermarket may amount to indirect discrimination since it disadvantages Muslims.
“Your employer should try to accommodate your request where possible.”