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The Muslim issue: Marks & Spencer faces boycott, for what?

Suddenly, there is a social media storm created by some angry customers and Marks & Spencer finds itself right in the middle of it.

Various media in the UK and around the world report that “UK retailer faces boycott after report claiming Muslim employees can refuse to serve alcohol and pork.”

Celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins joined in the debate and attacked M&S over this issue.

The Telegraph reported that “the matter arose after an unnamed customer trying to buy a bottle of champagne told the Telegraph they had been left “taken aback” when an “extremely apologetic” Muslim worker asked them to wait for another till to become free. Drinking alcohol is forbidden in Islam, and some Muslims refuse to handle it.”

Another report on Mail Online has so far been shared by more than 150.000 times on social media. In response to the initial reports, thousands flooded the retailer's Facebook page with angry comments, many threatening to boycott.

This issue has been widely reported by various media outlets such Al Jazeera, The Guardian, the BBC, Independent, Mirror, Sky News, NBC News, among many others. This issue has already hit Wikipedia M&S page. Such is the power of the digital world and social media.

M&S responded with a statement saying : “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 debate has given the Islamophobics all sorts of opportunities to express their racists views under the disguise of various 'positive sounding' concepts such customer rights, customer service etc.

Ignoring the extremely offensive and racist comments on social media and elsewhere, there are some interesting points raised by the protesting customers, such as 'equality', 'discrimination' (discrimination against customer, that is), 'freedom of choice' (again, the choice of the customer, that is), 'modern life vs. religion' and 'customer rights' etc. Some of the comments from the public are clearly very careful not to sound racist but all of these people are ultimately very angry about the policy of M&S for Muslims and other minorities.

For a socialist, it is not a usual position to take when it comes to big retail chains and their work practices, and how they threat their workers but on this occasion one has to admit that the policy of M&S, as issued by the company, is inclusive and respectful to the cultural, religious practises of the workers. It is also, as far as the official statement goes, clearly in favour of addressing the workers' demands by negotiating alternative work arrangements. One would hope that this policy is fully in practise and that workers' representatives and the company have an agreed process to for such cases.

We need to address some of the issues raised by the M&S protestors and have a clear understanding of what is really going on.

Number games are sometimes important to put the issues into context. First of all, no one knows the percentage of the workers in M&S that demanded cultural and religion based alternative working arrangements. The percentage of Muslim workers in M&S are also not known. According to Wikipedia, there are 703 stores in the United Kingdom and 361 stores spread across more than 40 countries. Although we don't know the actual size of this 'Muslim' problem, we can make some guesses based on a wider picture we know.

In the UK, the Census 2011 data regarding religion is as follows: Christianity: 37.5 million, Islam: 2.7 million, Hinduism: 800 thousand, Sikhism: 400 thousand, Judaism: 300 thousand, Buddhism: 260 thousand, Others: 260 thousand and No religion and religion not stated: 20.7 million. (The numbers are rounded). The total number of Muslims represent people from various countries and religious practised within Islam. There is no homogeneous 'group of people' called the 'Muslims'.

I see no problem in projecting the UK population percentages to the workforce of M&S, in other words, in the absence of numeric data, it would be an acceptable approach to say that around 4% of the workers in M&S could be Muslims. I will even go a step further and positively discriminate for Muslims. Let's double this number and assume that 10% of the workforce are Muslims.

This is not rocket science. I worked for years on designing workforce planning, statistical queue management systems (such as the supermarket check-out queues) and staff rota systems. For M&S it is not an impossible problem to solve the staff rota and staff assignment based on various criteria and constraints. This is no different to under-18 workers not being allowed to sell alcohol. We all come across this situation. Check-out queues can also easily be identified and separated as 'alcohol selling' and 'not selling' counters. This separation of check-out counters according to alcohol sale is not a new thing. Many supermarkets already implement this. M&S must have enough industrial engineers, supervisors and staff representatives to come up with a workable model. Seriously, it's not rocket science!

There are thousands of customer purchases in M&S every day. This issue, if it was a genuine issue affecting the customers would have been solved by the company long ago. No retailer would want customers to be affected and their profits reduced. But when a Muslim worker can't process a transaction, this suddenly becomes an international 'scandal'.

There are a lot people on the blogs and social media talking about principles and various rights. One has to also include the right for religious practises and attitudes. But there is something else when thousands of angry voices flood the social media and give out about Islam.

There is an ongoing campaign for years for justice and against apartheid. In 2005, Palestinian civil society issued a call for a campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights. A truly global movement against Israeli Apartheid is rapidly emerging in response to this call. The BDS campaign is supported world-wide by trade unions, academics, artists, civil societies and ordinary people. It is not aimed at Israeli people but to the state of Israel. M&S is one of the retailers that sells Israeli products and there have been numerous pickets at M&S stores and calls for not to sell and buy products from Israel.

Interestingly, this issue somehow did and does not get the same level of media and social media coverage. Considering both the Islamophobics and the genuinely concerned customers, who are now against the practises of Muslim workers and policies of M&S, one has to wonder how many of these people ever tweeted or wrote blogs about the BDS campaign.

 Why don't we see the BDS boycott campaign being as widely reported as the current call for boycott? Are the rights and the freedom of the Palestinian people not as important as the right to purchase alcohol from each and every check-out counter in an M&S store? Nelson Mandela was a great supporter of the fight for Palestinian rights and against the Israeli apartheid.

Recently, in Ireland there was a strike by the M&S workers to protect their pensions and other terms and conditions. 2000 workers went on strike. Many people expressed solidarity with the workers but many people didn't. These workers, Muslims, atheists, Christians, all colours, all religions, in solidarity defended their rights. No Muslim worker excluded him/herself from this fight. One must again wonder, did people who are angry about the Muslim worker and M&S say something about the strike and did they give out to M&S for the treatment of its workers?

One should give out to M&S for many reasons but their policy on religion-culture at workplace is not one of these reasons. Principles have a price, and that price is having to be principled against all injustice at all times.

Numerically, historically, politically and commercially I don't see the currently hyped-up issue as a genuine issue. I don't see any evidence of customers suffering due to the policies of M&S, but we all see a lot of people suffering in Palestine and a lot workers worried about their conditions.

The real issue in this anger against M&S is the issue of 'Islam' and constant Islamophobic propaganda. Good people who find themselves angry about M&S should think again. “Why am I really angry and what am I really angry about?” Is it really about having check-out counters where alcohol cannot be purchased or is it because how much hype there is when it comes to Islam and Muslims?

In Ireland for example, you can't even by Alcohol during certain hours on Sundays. There are many non-Muslim countries with laws and limitations on the sale of Alcohol. Is it because it is too big a challenge to boycott all of these or is it because the Muslim issue is a soft target and that's why there is such hype?

Muslims, Christians, Hindus, whoever they are and whatever religious practises they may have, they have something more binding in common: They are workers. Accommodating one group of workers' rights is a step in winning many more rights for all workers. Work-life balance, family-friendly work places, gender-balanced work environments are some of the many good things a lot of people would agree with. The UK is not being flooded with millions of Muslim check-out workers. This is now the time where we cherish inclusive and accommodating workplaces and fight back if such things don't exist. Like in life, the workplaces have people from many backgrounds, many beliefs and attitudes. These are real and genuine. A better society is not going to be achieved by forcing people into denouncing all their objective, moral, cultural conditions and beliefs.

Finally, to answer someone who told me on Twitter: “Have to disagree with you. When people accept a job they know what's involved. Why do they apply for job if not prepared to fully commit”. One has to just look around, to see how much choice people have or not, to find a job and feed their families. There are millions of workers who are forced to do jobs they rather not do but when it comes to putting food on the table, life isn't always that generous.

The UK is suffering from a hyped-up Islamophobia and ever diminishing workers rights, not from lack of alcohol selling check-out counters... That's probably 1 in every 10...

Seriously, the Muslim worker and M&S policies are not a problem... Look beyond, look behind all of this...

Enjoy your drinks and happy Christmas.

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