Retailers refuse to employ Muslim women wearing headscarves

During summer 1999, in a high-profile case, the two largest Danish chains of supermarkets, FDB and Dansk Supermarked, stated that they did not wish to employ Muslim women wearing headscarves to work at check-out desks or other visible places in stores. They claim that headscarves are unhygienic and not compatible with their principles concerning uniforms. According to the minister of labour, this contravenes the law on discrimination.

In a recent high-profile incident, a Muslim woman of Lebanese origin was rejected for employment by Denmark's two largest supermarket chains because she refused, if employed, to remove the headscarf that she wore according to Muslim tradition. The woman concerned, Maria Mawla, brought the matter to to attention of the press in late July 1999. The national supermarket chains concerned - the Danish Consumer Cooperative (Forenede Danske Brugsforeninger, FDB) and Dansk Supermarked- refused to employ Muslim women in headscarves to work at check-out desks or other visible places in their outlets. They claimed that: individual headgear is contrary to their ways and customs; headscarves are unhygienic and not compatible with the stores' principles concerning uniforms; and the presence of staff in headscarves may put off many customers.

The commerce section of the Union of Commercial and Clerical Employees (Handels- og Kontorfunktionærernes Forbund, HK/Handel) accused the two retailers of discrimination. The two national supermarket chains felt particularly stung by the accusation, given that they have recently been recruiting to an increasing extent employees of varying ethnic backgrounds. The Danish Commerce and Service (Dansk Handel & Service, DHS) employers' organisation supported FDB and Dansk Supermarked with a statement that, by enforcing their own practices with regard to work uniforms, the stores were acting contrary to neither the basic agreement regulating the Danish labour market nor the law. However, the wording of the relevant law - the 1996 law on prohibition against discrimination in the labour market - is not unambiguous in this area. The former minister of labour, Jytte Andersen, interpreted the law such that it did not in itself preclude local regulations on staff apparel. However, the present minister of labour, Ove Hygum, has stated in a letter sent on 5 August to the retailers and trade unions concerned that the law on discrimination in employment is violated "if an employer forbids an employee to wear religiously motivated headgear, when the employer's regulations on uniforms do not contain rules on headgear".

Negotiations between DHS, HK/Handel and the minister of labour about the correct interpretation of the law were still continuing in late August. FDB and Dansk Supermarked are awaiting the outcome of the negotiations before evaluating their practice concerning uniforms.

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