Dear M&S…

So according to that great bastion of reason and truth, The Daily Mail, M&S gives Muslim staff the right to refuse to sell alcohol or pork if they choose.

I glanced at the headline yesterday and my first thought was, “That’s nice.”  

And I didn’t really think any more of it until I ventured over to Facebook where my timeline was a stream of insults directed at M&S from all directions. What was M&S thinking? This is just pandering. It’s like vegetarians refusing to handle meat, someone said. This is why my children’s school doesn’t have a nativity play any more, said someone else.

I’m usually pretty good at not getting involved in these debates. But then I saw the words I couldn’t ignore:

“I suppose THEY won’t be working on Christmas Day!! Hypocrites.” 

“What’s wrong with celebrating OUR country and traditions?” 

I hate that.

I hate that someone would reduce any issue of faith to “them” and “us”.

I hate that someone would assume that people who don’t share their ethnicity or faith can’t share their nationality.

I hate that someone thinks that supporting one faith means you shouldn’t also support other faiths.

Here’s the thing. This story made me quite proud to shop at M&S. I would rather give my money to a company that affords its employees a little dignity and does not pressure them into doing something their faith forbids than a company that does the opposite.  I can’t understand why anyone would feel otherwise. The company has policies in place to support the faith of all employees, including Christians and Jews. Most decent employers in the UK do the same. And have done for many years – this really, really isn’t news.

In reality, once you take a step away from hysterical newspaper headlines, these policies really don’t inconvenience anyone. Let’s face it – what’s the worst that could happen?

The policy (for the most part) at M&S, Tesco and Morrisons is that Muslim staff who don’t want to handle certain products don’t work on the checkout. I assume sometimes, perhaps during very busy periods, that’s not completely possible and a store might want “all hands on deck”. So you could – occasionally – find yourself in a queue where you can’t pay for alcohol.

Well, I sometimes shop at the Morrisons supermarket near Flea’s school. The checkout staff include teenagers – who aren’t allowed to handle alcohol. When there’s a 16 or 17 year old operating a till, the supermarket puts up a small sign letting shoppers know they can’t purchase alcohol at that till, and to use another till. I’ve never once seen a customer complain. It’s never been a major inconvenience (unlike the policy that states if one checkout operator queries your age, you  aren’t able to buy an 18-rated DVD without ID from anyone in the store, even if everyone else can see you’re pushing 40, and you’re reduced to pointing out your GREY HAIRS to them).

We’re an increasingly diverse country. Not everyone shares the same ethnicity, the same sexuality, the same – or indeed any – faith.

Does that bring with it challenges, and occasional friction? Of course. There are centuries of prejudice and stereotypes to overcome, not to mention well-meaning but over-cautious people that go out of their way to be fair to everyone, and in the process create things that don’t really make anyone happy. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. That it isn’t a worthy goal to create a society that supports faith, whatever guise it takes.

Not convinced? Let’s just take a moment and think about the message that “them” and “us” sends. “Them and us” is the sort of thinking that leads to soldiers being hacked down like animals in the street. “Them and us” is what leads to people being beaten up on their way home because they kissed the wrong person at midnight on New Year’s Eve. “Them and us” is name-calling in the playground, and fear and separation. “Them and us” leads to comments like this on the M&S Facebook page: “I shan’t be shopping in M&S any more. The quintessentially British retailer bows down to Muslim beliefs.” 

It’s racism and prejudice, disguised as moral outrage. And I hate it.

Life’s much better when it’s just “us”.

What do you think?



Sally is a full-time blogger and founder of the Tots100, Trips100, Foodies100 and HIBS100 communities, along with the MAD Blog Awards. She spends a bit too much time on the Internet. She’s also a very happy Mum to Flea, the world’s coolest ten year old.

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  1. 23rd December 2013 / 11:12 am

    Well said. Respecting each other beliefs is fundamentally important, peace will never be achieved without it. And that peace starts from the bottom up- respect on a personal daily level can only help the much bigger international picture.
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    • Sally
      23rd December 2013 / 11:20 am

      Amen to that, Sonya.

  2. 23rd December 2013 / 11:13 am

    I agree with the chief exec of John Lewis/Waitrose, who pointed out it’s showing a great deal more respect for staff by giving them Christmas and Boxing Day off work to spend with their families (like JL do). I was listening to BBC Radio 5’s weekend evening business show with Declan O’Donnell. There had been a fair bit of discussion off air between the exec and the Bishop of Birmingham who, like most Bishops now, has to be an expert on all religions for fear of offending someone. The Bishop pointed out that there is nothing in scripture about not touching a sealed packet of pork product, nor a bottle containing alcohol and thought it was perhaps a step too far. John Lewis and Waitrose have uniforms that adhere to specific religious practices but also feel that formally adopting a policy that inhibits staff from being able to carry out their job is at best patronising.

    I can’t say I disagree. When I was a student I worked one summer in a bacon packing factory. Unsurprisingly none of my work mates were Jewish. They’d decided to work elsewhere, which made perfect sense to me. All M&S are doing in their bumbling but well meaning way is highlighting differences and causing the Daily Mail to froth at the mouth, which is I assume the exact opposite of what they want to do.
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  3. Sally
    23rd December 2013 / 11:19 am

    I don’t think the policy inhibits anyone from doing their job – for the purposes of clarity the policy is that if for religious reasons you ARE forbidden from handling those items then the employer will make every effort to find a role where you are not put into that position, if you request it. That to me feels respectful and supportive, rather than patronising or inhibiting, but that’s a personal opinion and as ever, I’m happy to differ on those 🙂

    And let’s add that this policy has been in place for YEARS, and the story is based on a store that didn’t follow the existing policy. What the Daily Mail is doing is stirring hate and division on entirely spurious grounds, which – let’s face it – is what the Daily Mail does best.

  4. 23rd December 2013 / 12:03 pm

    I really wondered how they would implement this at the tills, but if they were able to put a sign out before people join the queue saying this is a no alcohol and pork line i suppose that will be less awkward than having people get to front of the queue and having to say sorry i’m not serving you which I do think would annoy customers, and also not really be nice for the person serving. depending you have in front of you, it may not really be easy to do that. I’ve been spat on in the street, shouted at and insulted while just walking down the road on so many occassions as I’m sure a lot of other Muslims have, and this is while just walking along minding my own business! I do think that making people wait after queueing and saying “oh sorry my religion won’t let me serve you” will antagonise people, and I don’t think we need to do that. The publicity this story has got could be a negative I think, because it can go the same way as all these kind of stories about “muslims are making us cancel christmas” and things where councils or whoever have decided to take the decision on our behalf and not put up christmas lights in case it offends the Muslim community of the area (it doesn’t, and i love christmas lights!!) If those who cant handle the pork and alcohol are put in the home or clothing department to just avoid the issue altogether then that is ideal and if M&S take that into account when placing people and make an effort to try to ensure that, then that’s a positive, but the last thing any one would want is a confrontation at the tills with people wanting to buy their shopping and being refused
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    • Sally
      23rd December 2013 / 4:44 pm

      There’s no sense in making people queue twice – that would be daft; I suspect in most cases people with an issue handling certain products just don’t work on the till, hence why this policy has been in place for years and we’re only just hearing about it now!

    • Sally
      23rd December 2013 / 4:44 pm

      Cheers, ears.

    • Sally
      23rd December 2013 / 4:44 pm

      Thanks, Dan.

  5. 23rd December 2013 / 1:38 pm

    Does religion ban people from handling packages containing pork or alcohol though? Consuming it, perhaps, but refusing to handle glass or plastic – I would be interested to know where this is laid out as a rule or ban? Is there really a religious difference in touching glass if it contains juice but not if it contains wine? Or is it that they don’t think the person buying it should be doing so?

    Under 18s selling alcohol I think is a little different as that is a universal law. No-one under 18 can sell it. In shops where I have encountered this, the under 18 has to get a manager to approve it, not that the person buying it has to be inconvenienced and be made to feel like they are doing something wrong (although ID is of course another issue altogether).

    I totally agree with your point about “us” would be way better etc, but in an academic discussion I am interested in the theory behind the tolerance of “religious beliefs”. What if the “religious belief” was not regarding a product but refusing to serve a woman, for example. Would or should that be tolerated/made provision for by supermarkets?

    I am supportive of M&S doing their best to be inclusive, but I am not sure where this ends.
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    • Sally
      23rd December 2013 / 4:46 pm

      Some Muslims are forbidden from handling products of this nature, yes. Like Christianity, there’s no one version of Islam, some sections are more moderate, others less so. What I think employers like supermarkets are trying to do is be inclusive and say, well, if you happen to have a religious belief that prohibits you from X (whether that’s working on a Sunday or handling pork) then we’ll try and accommodate it. If it’s possible, doesn’t impact negatively on the customer or the business then – well – why not?

      In terms of the academic discussion about religious belief (I’m fairly confident it’s a reality, so won’t put it into inverted commas) then the way that UK law works is that religion and law are separate entities. A business has a legal obligation not to discriminate on the basis of faith, gender or sexuality – and that applies to customers as well as employees. So you’ll find in the NHS for example, that if a practitioner has conscientious objections (based on faith or personal conviction) to a particular procedure then they are free not to provide that service, and have a colleague do so in their place. But if the practice of that faith or conviction becomes discriminatory – for example, you only have a conscientious objection to providing sexual health services to homosexual people, for example – then that is a breach of the law prohibiting discrimination, and the employer would be within its rights to terminate your employment. So you ask “where does it end?” and the answer is “it ends where the law draws the line”.

      Whether you agree with where that line is drawn is a political issue, though, rather than a religious issue. For me, I think it seems fair. You are free to practice your faith, and employers are obliged to support that – but only up to the point at which your faith does not negatively impact on someone else’s right to carry on their own life as they choose.

      • 23rd December 2013 / 5:32 pm

        I thought I was entering a discussion, rather than asking for a (slightly patronising) provision of definitions. As a lawyer I know that religion and law are separate; just as I believe the latest position on Sunday working is that an employer can ask an employee to work on a Sunday as long as that request is proportionate to the business needs of the employer. The law however is always having to be re-defined as and when these issues arise. There are statutory rights but the problem is when the rights have to be balanced against each other.

        I guess I was merely musing on the definition of ‘religious belief’ and whether other staff would try to engage in other refusals on the grounds of “it goes against my religion” (or words similar) and how M&S would deal with that in a 3 way balancing act of business, employee and consumer. After all, what the law says and what actually happens is not always the same thing, especially when balancing two or even three competing legal rights.
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        • 23rd December 2013 / 5:34 pm

          I am also genuinely interested in what the exact position is regarding the definition of “handling” alcohol.
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          • Sally
            23rd December 2013 / 5:39 pm

            I thought I was discussing, apologies if you found it patronising. I suggest we agree to differ. Have a great Christmas and thanks for your comments.

          • 23rd December 2013 / 5:47 pm

            In the main I agree with your post; I don’t think we need to agree to disagree – I was merely widening the analogy and considering the legal/academic theoretical position. And yes, Happy Christmas.
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    • The Mini Mes and Me
      23rd December 2013 / 5:09 pm

      This is what I was trying to get at yesterday Rachel. I have no issue with companies respecting the beliefs of others, I’d not expect a Muslim to be made to work in the butchers dept for example, but they aren’t in direct contact with the meat or wine as it is sealed within packaging at tills and its part of the job role. Will companies start to take into consideration the needs of every individual member of staff to prevent prejudice?

      • Sally
        23rd December 2013 / 5:42 pm

        Well, the law is there to protect every individual, so I guess that yes, companies do take into account the needs of every individual. But the law does specify you can’t discriminate on the grounds of faith – this isn’t about personal preference or distaste, by any means.

        I wouldn’t like to get into a debate that an individual who feels they are prohibited from doing something that their interpretation of their own faith is flawed compared to mine, but I understand that for different muslims there are different views on that issue of whether it’s acceptable to sell something if you’re not touching it directly or consuming it.

        Regardless, I think it’s important to remember that M&S policy is to deploy staff with objections of this nature to work in other parts of the store. This is an isolated incident, and one that is probably rare – and I’d argue has very limited impact on anyone else. So to see it blown into such a negative story with people boycotting a company because of it? Well, it’s DM tactics, all over.

  6. 23rd December 2013 / 3:35 pm

    Well said. I saw the same reactions as you cropping up over Facebook, which is where I first heard about this ‘news’. I hate anything like this, unsurprisingly stirred up by the Daily Mail, that gets those ‘them’ and ‘us’ comments circulating. Personally, I had no strong feelings towards M&S either way – it’s their policy, their staff, and we live in a multicultural society. As you say, it doesn’t warrant even being news, but the paper must have had a slow day..
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    • Sally
      23rd December 2013 / 4:52 pm

      Slow news day, indeed!

    • Sally
      23rd December 2013 / 5:43 pm

      Thanks Wendy!

  7. 23rd December 2013 / 5:19 pm

    I love love this. It sums it up so well. This should never ever have made headline news. Single incident in M&S and one disgruntled customer. But ofcourse that’s not the Daily Mail way is it.

    I’m Muslim and things like this always make me wonder what my sudden defence is going to be because lots of people will suddenly ask why M&S would behave in this way as well as expect answers about the Muslim. I think the store has excellent intentions, and of course they can’t accommodate for all in every circumstance. There the lots of way around these things, maybe homeware is the best department for the particular guy 😉
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    • Sally
      23rd December 2013 / 5:44 pm

      Ha! I understand that as a rule M&S allows employees with religious objections to certain things to work in other areas – which seems like a sensible option, to me. I’m just glad to see a company having policies in place that say that yes, actually, we can take a sensible and pragmatic approach to a multi-faith society without it having to become a big issue (and how ironic it’s now become a big issue…!)

  8. One Mother Notes
    23rd December 2013 / 5:48 pm

    Very well said. I was sceptical of your viewpoint at first but soon found myself nodding in agreement.

  9. 23rd December 2013 / 6:45 pm

    The Islamic law consultant they had on the radio discussing this was interesting. They said the no alcohol law (for example) isnt Koranic but traditional and whilst it would be inappropriate for a Muslim to work in an office licence, working in a shop that sells alcohol and indeed processing a transaction is acceptable and that the individual was wrong to refuse.

    I don’t pretend to know enough about Islamic culture to comment further on this but I would draw the analogy to the extreme Christian right who are fixated on one of The ten commandments to the exclusion of the other 9. I’m fairly sure that coveting your neighbours ox is as sinful as lying with another man, and that Mose’s tablets weren’t ranked in some way only visible to the American right. In both instances it would seem to me that religious ignorance from within the religion is as much to blame as supposed ignorance from without.
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      • Sally
        23rd December 2013 / 7:18 pm

        Honestly, I find it a bit odd that the debate is centring on “let’s prove the Muslim wrong!” rather than “Isn’t it a good thing that companies try and accommodate all faiths as part of employees’ working lives?”

        If it’s something that companies including M&S, Tesco, Morrisons, Asda and others have all come across, and have policies to cover (with the exception of Asda) I’m guessing it’s not a belief that’s the province of extremists.

        I honestly think it’s a big old non-story with racism and fear at its heart, but perhaps I’m wrong.

        But let’s say the commentators in the Daily Mail are right *shudders*. Perhaps it *is* unfair for a UK company to accommodate faith in the workplace. Maybe religion isn’t relevant any more and we shouldn’t have the right to keep our faith in the workplace. I just think that’s a kind of sad state of affairs as so many of us gear up to celebrate what’s a religious festival. That’s not a statement about you, obv, more about the Daily Fail and its followers.

          • Sally
            23rd December 2013 / 10:19 pm

            I’m not sure I follow. There’s no single version of Christianity but I’m not sure there has to be. Why should there be one version of Islam? As I say, though, my concern here isn’t with the teaching of Islam (not least because I know bugger all about it) but just the outrage that a company should try to accommodate faith in the workplace – because I suspect (call me cynical) the issue isn’t “company tries to accommodate faith” but rather “company tries to accommodate Islam”. Just my thoughts, though. I always love debating this stuff with you, though, thanks for commenting and hope you and C have a fab Christmas x

  10. 23rd December 2013 / 8:49 pm

    Do you know what? They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Look at all the school’s that end up in the newspaper because they make people with strong faiths remove religious jewellery or certain attire, yet we have a company who accommodates a person’s religious requirements and they are penalised. I’ve worked for M&S (admittedly 15 years ago) and they were amazing employers who treated their staff with respect and courtesy. I commend them for having this policy and hope that they offer all employees the same courtesy and level of consideration.
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    • Sally
      23rd December 2013 / 10:19 pm

      Quite so.

  11. Bongi
    24th December 2013 / 5:18 am

    Love your post and i totally agree.

    To rachel, As for trying to understand why Muslims would want to refuse to sell alcohol or pork, i don’t think it has anything to do with that person thinking the consumer shouldn’t be buying it, or about making the consumer feel that they are doing anything wrong, it is simply as a Muslim forbidden, and so I think some people may feel uncomfortable giving/selling that same thing to someone else.

    As Sally so rightly pointed out, in the NHS, as a practitioner you have the right on conscientious grounds to refuse a certain procedure, for example I know many Christian (and Muslim) colleagues who would not feel comfortable aborting a fetus, for whatever reason. It’s not to make the patient feel bad, or to inflict your view on them, simply something you are not happy to do. There’s plenty other people who will, and this never is an issue.

    As for whoever it was on Facebook who said “I suppose THEY won’t be working on Christmas” … Well what do I say to that. As a Dr and a Muslim, I have always volunteered to work on Christmas Day, and forgo any family time i could have off, so that my
    Colleagues who do celebrate christmas for religious reasons or not can see their families. incidentally I never get Eid off and obviously never expect to either.

    There are times when I think unnecessary pandering occurs…. And I’ve spoken up against Muslims in these situations at my own university and workplaces, (for anonymity reasons i would rather not detail) however this ridiculous daily wail story is not one of them.

    Anyway thank you Sally for the discussion.

    A pleasure to read your posts as always

  12. Nikki
    24th December 2013 / 7:54 am

    It’s only what I’d expect from the DM anyway who ran with a lead news story online last week about an expensive house for sale. It made a change from the benefits and religion issues though. Their whole intention is to stir trouble between the classes and religious fractions and yes, they’ve succeeded again here it appears.

    Like you Sally I think it was a pretty neat policy for m&s – to try and accommodate employee wishes, but I sincerely doubt a so-called boycott by DM readers will impact the company, not until the readers need a decent sandwich anyway…. 🙂

  13. 26th December 2013 / 9:55 am

    Thoroughly agree with everything you said. I actually was so annoyed by the comments I saw on Facebook and sad that some where from acquaintances I made a status about the situation. I do not mind debate, but the vile racist comments and mainly embittered “What about us!” comments were intolerable. I unfriended a couple, I was shocked to see a few people comment on my status and see the veiled racism.

    Its a policy that has been in place since 2007, the Telegraph reported this first in a considered manner, the gutter press added the fuel and furore, as usual stirred up more by miltant sites and Facebook pages and it worries me that these views are becoming more evident and obvious.