Anti-Muslim prejudice on the German labour market
Suspicion and prejudice

Some companies in Germany are reluctant to hire Muslims. But it is not only the Muslim applicants who are losing out, so too are the companies. After all, there are multiple benefits for companies that embrace religious diversity. By Martin Lechtape

Hilal Akdeniz doesn't like recalling her temping job at a Frankfurt asset management call centre. After just a few days, Akdeniz, who was a school-age student at the time, was summoned for a chat with the boss. He tried to persuade her that she should choose a different name when talking to clients on the phone. Müller, Meier, Schmidt – it really didn't matter, as long as it sounded German. Her Turkish name would put customers off, he said. "That robbed me of a piece of my identity," says Akdeniz, now 41. After all, she is a German national – born, raised and educated in Germany. Nevertheless, she was encouraged not to use her real name.

Akdeniz is not the only one. The job application process is particularly problematic for women who have Turkish names or who wear a headscarf. According to a study by the  Institute of Labour Economics (IZA) in Bonn, these women have to submit on average around four times as many applications as non-Muslim women to be called for an interview – even if they have the same level of qualifications.

Some even face open hostility: in December 2019, a regional labour court awarded compensation to a single mother who had applied for a trainee position with a tax consultancy after breaking off her university studies. Her application photo showed her wearing a headscarf. The tax consultant rejected the application. His reason: "I assume that your application was not serious and that you intend to use it to support your benefits claim." He continued: "Should you wish to submit a serious application in future, dispense with your 'headgear'."

Such hostility is presumably rare, but many employers seem to regard religious affiliation as a key factor when selecting potential colleagues – subconsciously at least. "Many employers primarily associate Islam with uncertainty and potential conflict within the workforce," says Yasemin El-Menouar, a scholar of Islamic studies and head of the Religion Monitor project at the Bertelsmann Foundation. This prevents them from hiring Muslim employees, she adds. This will not be news to many Muslim employees: an EU-wide survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights says 27 per cent report regular discrimination in the workplace.

People at a German employment agency (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Kahnert)
According to a study entitled "Discrimination in Employment owing to Islamic Religious Affiliation" by Germany's Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency, qualitative data suggest that Muslims encounter interpersonal and structural discrimination mostly as a result of their (ascribed) ethnic origin. Moreover, "in a job interview context, migrants from specific regions are presumed to have a below-average level of qualification and lower productivity. Employers fear that employing Muslim applicants could lead to financial losses, either because of (anticipated) negative customer reactions or feared conflicts within the company. Especially Muslim women who wear a headscarf are particularly affected by discrimination in seeking to enter the labour market."

Positive measures don't just benefit employees

But why are things so difficult for Muslim jobseekers? "Islam has an image problem," says El-Menouar. Reports on Islamist terror and human rights violations influence the public perception of Islam. This is also evident at work. "Some people have images in their heads that have nothing to do with reality," says El-Menouar. For this reason, companies need to do more to educate their staff and create transparency, she adds, especially in businesses where many different faith communities are represented on the staff.

For example, at Frankfurt Airport, which employs some 81,000 people from 88 nations. Ten prayer rooms are available at the airport for Muslims, Christians and Jews. For Muslim employees who work primarily outside on the airport apron, the company has set up small prayer niches in buildings facing onto the apron. "We allow our staff to pray, but the smooth running of operations takes priority," says Christian Meyer, diversity manager with the operating company Fraport. For years now, Fraport has laid on a large buffet in an event room during Ramadan where practicing Muslims can break their fast together after sunset.

Such positive measures don't just benefit employees. "I think our staff are more motivated and balanced than elsewhere," says Meyer. This has a positive effect on performance, he adds. Moreover, air passengers from all over the world also expect such facilities from an international airport. Religious tolerance can, therefore, also be an economic factor. El-Menouar from the Bertelsmann Foundation holds a similar view: "When seeking to recruit professionals from abroad, religious diversity plays a hugely important role," she says. Employers should adopt a clear stance and anchor religious diversity within the company's business model and strategy.

For Hilal Akdeniz too, religious tolerance was a key factor in her choice of profession. She resigned from her temping job at the call centre after just a few weeks. After graduating from secondary school, she studied sociology and worked as a researcher at the Goethe University in Frankfurt. But there too, she experienced hostility. During a tutorial she was giving, a male student asked her to remove her head covering. He claimed it bothered him.

"At first I couldn't quite believe what I was hearing, but of course I left my headscarf on," she says. She now works for a Muslim foundation in Berlin. She explains one of the advantages of working in such a team: "When we go out for dinner together, I don't have to explain each time why I don't eat pork or drink alcohol," says Akdeniz.

Martin Lechtape

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung/ 2021

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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