Dispatches from the Workplace: Is that Shari’a?

In popular parlance the phrase “Is this kosher?” has nothing to do with food, or with ritual purity; it refers to the “rightness,” or justice, of something.

Of course “kosher” never did refer only to a certain slaughtering process or a particular set of prayers; it involves a whole set of ethical standards. Kosher meat processing owners discovered this broader principle when their workers sought to organize unions. Two years ago in the Midwest, the Twin Cities Workers’ Interfaith Network organized a Passover seder outside a kosher food processing plant challenging the owner’s kosher certification.

For more than a decade, a conservative rabbi from Minneapolis, Rabbi Morris Allen, has been trying to get the entire Jewish community to take seriously this concept of kosher. He argues that the humane treatment of animals is not enough in the determining of kosher standards—they should also ensure that the workers at the meatpacking plants and slaughterhouses are treated with respect and dignity.

In Islam, there is the concept of “Shari’a,” referring to the guiding principles revealed in the Qur’an. On the most basic level, it refers to whether or not something is clean or just. (As with “kosher,” the word is often used in conjunction with food, although the word “halal” refers specifically to the process of ensuring that food itself is clean.)

Islamic or Shari’a-compliant investing, therefore, prohibits business activities—like gambling, alcohol, and usury—that result in undignified moral behavior. In the Muslim world, more and more companies and financial institutions are aiming toward Shari’a-compliance, with millions of dollars at stake. Huge conferences are organized among business leaders to discuss and review Shari’a compliance, while in the U.S., Harvard University runs an annual conference on the matter.

Now, as Islamic investing makes its way into the mainstream, worker justice advocates are looking at how the principle of Shari’a can help workers. Indianapolis, smack in the heart of America, is now the center of such a discussion: a small group of janitors claim Shari’a should apply to them and are challenging the owner of the building where they clean to allow them to organize a union.

A little more than two years ago, janitors across Indianapolis began organizing to improve wages, benefits, and working conditions. The janitors, who were making less than $7.50 an hour at the time with no benefits, looked with envy at the salaries of unionized janitors in Chicago, just a few hours up the road, who were making as much as $12.50 an hour, with health care and pension. They had seen what the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) had done to help janitors in Houston in 2006 when 5000 janitors organized and wages jumped from $6.25 (with fewer work hours) to $7.25. By January 2009, Houston janitors will receive $7.75 and hour. If janitors could organize in Houston, why not Indianapolis?

The religious community had been instrumental in janitor contracts in Houston and Chicago. The workers and SEIU reached out seeking support to religious leaders, including the Islamic Society of North America, which is headquartered outside Indianapolis. (Again, who would guess that one of the nation’s largest Islamic organizations is headquartered in Indianapolis?)

The religious community did what it often does in such janitor campaigns; it met with janitors to hear their stories and encourage them to stand up for their rights; it led prayers at public events and rallies; it organized delegations to building owners encouraging them to allow the workers to organize without having to use the cumbersome National Labor Relations Board process (NLRB). This faithful band of Indianapolis religious leaders, led by Rev. Darren Cushman Wood, pastor of Speedway United Methodist Church and organizer Rev. C.J. Hawking, now the director of the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues, called itself the Indianapolis Clergy Committee. During one delegation, the clergy members even got themselves arrested—possibly a first in Indianapolis activist history.

One company that was visited (“delegated”) several times by religious delegations was the international real estate company HDG Mansur, the second largest property owner in Indianapolis. This company contracts with Executive Management Services (EMS) for its building cleaning services. EMS has vehemently opposed the organizing efforts of the workers; the janitors and their religious supporters claim EMS intimidates and threatens workers who have sought a union contract.

In the midst of the janitors’ struggle, the religious community learned that HDG Mansur planned to launch the first-ever publicly-traded Shari’a-compliant investment fund, Al-Umran Global Property Fund Limited, on the London and Dubai stock exchanges. The Indianapolis religious leaders quickly studied the concept of Shari’a, and it appeared to them that Shari’a compliance should include justice to workers, given the clear teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.

Prophet Muhammad said, “Allah said, ‘I will be an opponent to three types of people on the Day of Resurrection: one who makes a covenant in My name but proves treacherous; one who sells a free person and eats his price; and one who employs a worker and takes full work from him but does not pay him for his labor’” (Al-Bukhari). As part of its effort to promote its Shari’a-compliance certification, Mr. Harold Garrison, the Executive Director of HDG Mansur, attended at the Islamic Real Estate Finance Conference in London. So too did Rev. C.J. Hawking, the Indianapolis clergy organizer, and Sheik Abdool Khan, officially representing the Islamic Society of North America. They met with investors and Shari’a scholars to reiterate the importance of the worker justice component in determining a company’s Shari’a compliance.

In a letter to prospective investors, Sheikh Abdool Khan, an Islamic scholar with the Islamic Foundation, said Shari’a compliance should not reflect the end product alone, but of the entire process in general. In the case of HDG Mansur, its hiring of a cleaning company that violates basic labor rights comes in conflict to the principles of Shari’a. “To blindly sign them off as Shari’a-compliant would do a disservice to the spirit of Islamic Shari’a, not to mention the disservice to poor helpless janitors and their families,” Sheikh Khan said.

The ISNA Secretary General, Dr. Muneer Fareed, shares this concern. In a letter to investors, he said, “The unjust treatment of workers poses a threat to both the integrity and reputation of Islamic investment practices, but also to Islam’s vision of social justice.”

In the Middle East, Shari’a compliance is provided by Shari’a boards composed of scholars. In the United States, the official certification procedures are just being put into place. A Fiqh council (the Fiqh Council of North America) has been organized with 18 national Islamic scholars and leaders to oversee the Shari’a-compliance certification process. The case of the Indianapolis janitors has brought new urgency to this council.

Meanwhile, despite HDG Mansura’s continued recalcitrance, janitors in Indianapolis are negotiating with a council of building contractors, and a first-ever Indianapolis janitors contract is expected soon.

It might be only a matter of time before “Is this Shari’a?” becomes as common as “Is this kosher?”

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