On Wednesday I attended a talk by former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold on the role the interfaith community plays in the labor movement. Although the talk was organized by the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice, no one I spoke to (including Feingold) was able to give me an Islamic perspective on labor and worker’s rights. So I decided to look it up myself.
I found two wonderful papers, one by Adnan Zulfiqar and another by Radwa Elsaman, that explain what the Qur’an and sharia law say about labor-related issues. Unsurprisingly, they reveal an astonishingly modern conception of worker’s right.
For one thing, Islam sees the relationship between employers and employees as a “brotherhood.” It is not a paternalistic relationship nor a patron-client relationship, but one of equals where each has responsibilities to the other. The Prophet Muhammad reportedly said:
Your employees are your brothers upon whom Allah has given you authority, so if a Muslim has another person under his control, he/she should feed them with the like of what one eats and clothe them with the like of what one wears and you should not overburden them with what they cannot bear and if you do so, help them in their jobs.
In return, employees must provide employers with hard work, diligence, and honesty.
Muhammad was also very clear that workers must be paid wages on time, and the wages must be fair. He reportedly said that employees must be paid before their “sweat dries.” Zulfiqar says:
Islamic juristic discourses suggest that [wages] should be “at least at a level that would enable employees to fulfill all their and their families’ essential needs in a humane manner.”
Sharia law also places strict restrictions on child labor and insists that employers respect their employees’ religious beliefs, regardless of their faith. The law and the Qur’an also require that workers be offered adequate sick leave and compensation. And, as we have discussed before, Islam clearly forbids human trafficking, which involves people being bought and sold for labor.
These attitudes towards labor and worker’s rights have been adapted to policy prescriptions in many majority-Muslim countries. For example, Egyptian labor law decrees that female employees be entitled to 90 days of paid maternity leave. Women are also guaranteed two breastfeeding breaks every day for up to two years after childbirth. And all workplaces that employ at least 100 women must provide childcare.
Similar principles are enshrined in the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, passed by members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in 1990, based on sharia principles. The declaration reads:
[All workers] shall be entitled – without any discrimination between males and females – to fair wages for his work without delay, as well as to the holidays allowances and promotions which he deserves. On his part, he shall be required to be dedicated and meticulous in his work.
Similarly, the League of Arab States’ Arab Charter on Human Rights reads:
The right to work is a natural right of every citizen. The State shall endeavor to provide, to the extent possible, a job for the largest number of those willing to work, while ensuring production, the freedom to choose one’s work and equality of opportunity without discrimination of any kind on grounds of race, colour, sex, religion, language, political opinion, membership in a union, national origin, social origin, disability or any other situation.
However, I don’t want to gloss over the fact that some countries, particularly in the Middle East, are notorious for their poor working conditions for immigrant workers. But it should be noted that such exploitation is often the result of individual recruitment and employment agencies, rather than national policies. And Human Rights Watch reports that even in these countries, working conditions are improving.
Overall it seems pretty clear that Islamic doctrine promotes and protects worker’s rights. We hear a lot about the important role Christian and Jewish groups in international labor movements. It’s about time Muslims were recognized as well.
Do you see a connection between Islam and labor rights? Where does Islam stand on the issue of labor unions? Do you see working conditions improving for immigrant workers in the Middle East? Please leave your comments below.