Lincoln Tan

Lincoln Tan is the New Zealand Herald’s diversity, ethnic affairs and immigration senior reporter.

Religion at work under spotlight

AUT report on minority faiths in workplace finds employees face discrimination because of their beliefs.

Mehpara Khan, left, with her supervisor Georgie Hackett, says having religious minority employers and employees requires a "two-way thing" to produce a positive workplace outcome. Photo / Dean Purcell
Mehpara Khan, left, with her supervisor Georgie Hackett, says having religious minority employers and employees requires a "two-way thing" to produce a positive workplace outcome. Photo / Dean Purcell

Employers find it okay to employ Buddhists and Hindus but are wary of hiring Muslims, an AUT study has found.

The research for a book entitled Work and Worship by AUT Professor of Diversity Edwina Pio investigated the impact of minority religions in the New Zealand workplace.

It found tension among local employers from hiring Muslims and "acceptance of Muslims and their way of living still needs improvement".

"Women with veils and/or burqas are viewed with general curiosity and avoidance ... it is also difficult for men with beards," said the report.

"Employers seem okay with employing Hindus and Buddhists, but they have many question marks if the individual is a Muslim."

More than 200 people were interviewed for the research. Some Muslim employees said they faced racial comments or queries linking them to terror attacks and many said they experienced discrimination because of their faith.

Professor Pio said some segments continued to be affronted by immigrants and were wary and nervous about employing them.

"'We like their food, but we don't like them taking our jobs', is often the prevailing sentiment," she said.

"Contradictions and tensions are exacerbated by ideological discourse, radical aspects of some religion, and a narrow understanding of socio-historical antecedents."

Professor Pio said organisations and managers needed "sensitisation" about the Muslim way of life, but Muslim migrant workers needed to be accommodating to New Zealand ways as well.

In the 2013 Census, 46,148 people identified as Muslims, 19,191 as Sikhs, 89,919 as Hindus and 24,585 Indian Christians, while 1.2 million profess to have no religion.

"There is a blurring of boundaries between secular and sacred, public and private, work and religion," said Professor Pio.

Indian Christians in the research faced the least barriers, and acknowledged the benefits derived from having westernised names, a Western dress sense and fluency in English.

Professor Pio said the findings showed a need to develop a more sophisticated understanding of religious diversity here.

The Human Rights Commission said it received 19 complaints from Muslims between July 2008 and November 26 last year.

Dame Susan Devoy, Race Relations Commissioner, said it was a basic human right to be free to pursue one's religious faith and Muslims here needed to be given a fair go. "Negative stereotyped perceptions some people have about Muslim people ignore the outstanding contribution Muslim people have made and continue to make in our communities," she said.

She said New Zealanders needed to know that Muslims first arrived to live here in the 1800s and "have helped build this incredible country".

Zain Ali, head of Islamic Research at the University of Auckland, hailed the book - to be launched today - as groundbreaking.

"The unique feature, as I see it, is its attempt to understand the relationship between the sacred and the secular in the context of commercial organisations," Dr Ali said.

Massey University sociologist Paul Spoonley said many local Muslims also arrived as refugees, and this conflated their employment struggle.

He said after the Ahmed Zaoui case, New Zealand went through a period where Muslim refugees were seen as problematic.

Different religious experience 'enriching'

Having a Muslim staff member on the team has "truly enriched" Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand, says its communications manager Georgie Hackett.

Mehpara Khan, a veil-wearing Ahmadiyya, last year became the first Muslim to be employed by the organisation since it started in 1977.

"Her religion has been really neat for our team because we ask lots of questions, and actually learned a lot more about what it means for someone to be Muslim," said Ms Hackett, who is Ms Khan's manager.

"When she first started, we were wondering if it was okay if we ate pork near her ... it just got us way more interested [in the religion], I guess."

Ms Hackett said having a Muslim communications executive added diversity and interest to the staff of 18, and has helped the organisation connect better with its Muslim and ethnic minority clients.

The organisation supports patients and their families living with leukaemia, lymphoma, myeloma and related blood conditions.

"Leukaemia and other blood cancers, they are not race-specific ... so you've got to have people that can reflect all parts of society to be able to serve effectively," Ms Hackett said.

Ms Khan, who grew up in New Zealand, said she believed it had to be a two-way thing in order for employers and employees of minority religions to have a positive workplace outcome.

"I come with that view that I have my religion and my beliefs, but everybody else has theirs too," she said.

"You need to coexist with people to achieve any kind of outcome."

However, Ms Khan agreed that most Muslims here do face resistance and barriers from employers when seeking employment.

- NZ Herald

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