Ramadan in the UAE: What employers and colleagues should know

12 April 2021

The 13th April 2021 is the first day of Ramadan. Ramadan is the holiest month in the Islamic calendar. It is a month of heightened spiritual devotion for Muslims across the world. Muslims will be fasting (abstaining from food and water, including smoking) during sunlight hours. The month of Ramadan is also the month in which the Holy Qur'an was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him).

From a business perspective, the holy month of Ramadan carries some special considerations which employers should be aware of.

This guide intends to provide a summary of the key issues to be taken into consideration. It also touches upon how the continuing implications of COVID-19 may impact business practices in the region.

Working Hours

All employees in the UAE are entitled (under the Federal Labour Law) to a reduction in working hours. The working day is reduced by two hours. A common issue for clarification is that the Federal Law applies to both Muslims and non-Muslims. Accordingly, all employees of companies subject to the Federal Labour Law are entitled to the two hour reduction in the working day. Some exceptions to this rule apply particularly for executive level employees (opting out of the working hours' requirements) and employees in industry categories such as retail, hospitality and food and beverage.

Different rules may apply in the free-zones which typically have their own laws or regulations. For example, in the Dubai International Financial Centre Free-Zone ("DIFC"), reduced working hours only apply to Muslim employees. The DIFC laws expressly state that a Muslim employee shall not be required to work in excess of 6 hours. The Abu Dhabi Global Market Free-Zone ("ADGM") applies the same rule but only if the Muslim employee is fasting. Technically this means a Muslim employee not observing the fast is required to work normal hours in the ADGM.

As Ramadan is a month of heightened spiritual observance, it is practice that Muslim employees will be stricter in their adherence to their five daily prayers (one of the five pillars of Islam). Consequently, employers should be mindful that employees may require allocated space in the office to pray or otherwise may use communal prayer rooms in office buildings or other workplace environments.

This year, like last year, a large number of employees are working from home as a result of continuing COVID-19 measures. In light of this, employers and colleagues should adopt some additional measures in consideration of observing colleagues, which may include:

  • to avoid on-line meetings during the early morning, as fasting employees will have adjusted their working hours to reflect their later end to the day (to accommodate Suhour (evening meals) followed by Fajr prayers at sunrise) and avoid on-line meetings at the sunset period which coincides with Iftar (the break of the fast and Maghrib, evening prayers);
  • to acknowledge that certainly at the beginning of Ramadan, many Muslim employees are adjusting to the period of fasting and therefore employers should be more flexible around work demands and be sensitive to individuals' needs; and
  • in communications with clients and third parties, apply the same measures one would with their own Muslim employees and generally show a heightened awareness of cultural and religious values.

It is common practice for a Ramadan rota to be adopted so that employees can cover the working day. Please also check with Government offices as to their respective working hours and this may also have implications at the work place.

Does your company have a Ramadan Policy?

Workplace diversity is a key feature of the HR function of any UAE based company. In this regard, and bearing in mind many employees may be new to the region or the religion of Islam, it is good HR practice to have a documented Ramadan policy. This policy should address cultural and religious etiquette as well as practical considerations to demonstrate respect and tolerance. For example, during the month of Ramadan, non-fasting employees should be discrete during lunch or break periods and try not to eat or drink in the presence of Muslim employees. Swearing in the work place should be avoided in the ordinary course of business but more so during the month of Ramadan. All employees should also be made aware of the extended prayers (this is the evening Taraweeh prayer) and length of day for each Muslim employee.

Employees should also avoid asking questions of a Muslim employee as to why they may not be observing the fast on a particular day. There are exemptions applicable if, say, an employee has travel commitments or is sick on any day during the month of Ramadan.

How can non-Muslim employees get into the spirit of Ramadan?

There are a number of interesting ways in which non-Muslim employees can get into the spirit of Ramadan. The easiest option is of course to greet your colleagues and clients with the phrase "Ramadan Kareem" or "Ramadan Mubaruk". This translates to "Blessed Ramadan" and is a warm greeting which will be well received. Beyond this, Ramadan is also a month of giving. Muslims will discharge their duty of Zakat (or charity) in this month. Employees may wish to participate in giving charitable donations to any one or more of the UAE's registered charities as a collegiate gesture. 

It is also common (COVID-19 permitting) to participate in Iftar or Suhour gatherings. Iftar takes place at sunset and coincides with the Maghrib prayers. We understand Iftar bookings are being taken in hotels and restaurants across the UAE but on a smaller scale and following COVID-19 guidance.

Ramadan calendars are also easily available on-line. It is great for all employees to keep an eye on prayer and Iftar timings throughout the month.

With this in mind, we at Gowling WLG wish all our clients, Muslim and non-Muslim, Ramadan Kareem!

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