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Court: Helsinki breaks contract talks with Muslim recruit who wanted prayer breaks

Three city officials face labour discrimination charges after ending contract talks with a new hire over prayer breaks.

At prayer
Image: Yle

Three civil servants with Helsinki City’s Urban Environment Division face labour discrimination and dereliction of duty charges in Helsinki District Court after failing to finalise an employment contract with a new hire after he said he was a practicing Muslim and would require prayer breaks during working time.

In 2016, the city hired the plaintiff as an engineer for the city’s housing production unit, but the recruitment process came to a halt after the plaintiff sat down with a senior civil servant and human resources director from the Urban Environment Division to draw up the employment contract.

During that meeting the plaintiff told his new employer that he was a practicing Muslim and would need to take daily five-minute breaks for prayers in addition to a one-hour break on Fridays that he did not expect to be paid for. At this point, Helsinki city officials ended the meeting, saying they would revisit the matter. Later on, the senior civil servant told the plaintiff that the Urban Environment Division would not offer him an employment agreement.

Blame game

The senior civil servant and HR director now face labour discrimination charges in Helsinki District Court. A third city official, the boss of the senior civil servant, is also being prosecuted on labour discrimination and dereliction of duty charges.

The defendants said it was unclear who carried the final responsibility for choosing not to hire the engineer.

In their response to the prosecutor, the HR director said they consulted the city’s policy on prayer breaks which outlined that as an employer, the city aims to allow its workers to practice their faith. The HR director said they forwarded this information to the applicant, but also inquired if the plaintiff could be flexible with the prayer breaks if needed.

The HR director said the plaintiff was offended by the question—something that in turn incensed the HR director, who denies any wrongdoing.

The two senior civil servants meanwhile have pointed the finger at each other when it came down to who really made the final decision not to hire the engineer.

The city has awarded the plaintiff 40,000 euros in damages for discrimination and illegal termination.

The Helsinki District Court will conclude hearings in the case next week.

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