Ramadan staffing for hotels and retailers is all about making adjustments

With rules over how many hours staff spend in the workplace leaving many employees with a couple of hours spare each day for the next month or so, some sectors have to juggle complying with the law and manning operations with longer opening hours.

Abu Dhabi, UAE, June 27, 2013:

The Ramadan tent at the Emirates Palace is in the process of being constructed. The venue will host many iftars during the Muslim holy month. The construction of the tent is within itself a vast undertaking. 

Seen here is Bahadur. He is in the process of securing the carpet onto the floor. 

Lee Hoagland/The National  (Photos are for a Business story by Gillian Duncan on Ramadan working hours).

Making adjustments to the office work day during Ramadan is by all intents and purposes, rather straightforward.

Hours are shortened in line with the law, and the pace of work tends to wind down anyway. But how do other sectors such as retail and hospitality, which are subject to the same rules, cope when they often have longer opening hours? And what happens to companies that flout the law?

“The law says you should work two hours less,” says Marize Coetzer, a senior associate at Taylor Wessing.

“The only place where it would not be applicable is within the DIFC [Dubai International Financial Centre] because they have a separate law and the DIFC law says Ramadan hours do not apply for non-fasting employees.”

If a company is found to not be adhering to Ramadan hours the authorities may impose penalties, which are decided on a case-by-case basis.

"I know that in certain commercial establishments such as hotels and cafes … the entities might increase working hours to nine hours a day, but they have to have approval from the Ministry of Labour," adds Ms Coetzer.

"It must be challenging for certain industries, especially when Ramadan is such a time of over the top shopping and eating."
You would be forgiven for thinking the task was particularly hard in an establishment such as Emirates Palace, the sprawling luxury hotel in the capital. But not so, according to the manager, Alexander Schneider.

“Emirates Palace has 2,000 employees in total. That’s five employees to every room, which is I think still an unbeaten ratio, so for us it is fairly simple,” says Mr Schneider.

“The business declines naturally towards Ramadan, so the occupancy declines by some percentage points. Of course with this, the overall daily work comes down simultaneously, which is currently exactly the amount of lean room we need to have in order to compensate the shorter Ramadan working hours.”

However, the hotel does have to make some adjustments.

It adds more shifts to make up for the loss of hours as an eight-hour work day is reduced to six, while fewer holidays are approved. And almost 90 employees are reassigned to staff the Ramadan tent, which will welcome more than 800 guests every evening during the period.

The longer fasting period this year complicates staffing matters further.

"You have to fast from 3.30am until 7.30pm almost. This means Suhoor hours are going until 3.30am, which means your staff are taking care of your guests until 3.30am, and they need to have a good night's sleep. They usually don't start until 4pm."
But many of the staff come from the hotel's restaurants that are closed during the day, freeing up experienced waiters and waitresses who are reassigned solely to the tent.

The situation is similar at the Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi Grand Canal.

Employees also work six hours as opposed to eight and staff are reassigned to make sure there are enough employees for iftar and suhoor events.

"There are certain restaurants, some of the operations around the hotel for example, that we don't serve outside at the pool, so we reassign some of that staffing," says Tabish Siddiquie, the executive assistant manager of food and beverages at the hotel.
"The good part is for Ramadan, travel, business and everything slows down in the Middle East and even more so now with it falling during the summer, so occupancy levels are down and it is a little bit easier to manage," he adds.

Staffing levels are typically reduced by 50 per cent during the day as business is limited and increased in the evening to cater for Iftar and Suhoor events. And Ritz-Carlton also tends to assign the majority of its Muslim staff with evening shifts.

“We have staff from Morocco, staff from India, staff from Sri Lanka that are Muslim. Some from Jordan as well, so we do assign quite a lot of them in the evening, just to allow, especially our local guests, to have the authentic experience where they can speak Arabic,” says Mr Siddiquie.

"But it's not necessarily a thumb rule. I think it's probably 80 per cent in the evening and maybe 20 per cent during the day."
Planning does not require too much work, just agreement between all of the parties, he adds.

When deciding whether to have a tent or stage events in the ballroom or restaurant, the hotel looked at what other Ritz-Carlton properties were doing in the region.

“My chef has worked at the Ritz-Carlton in Bahrain, so he brought a lot of his experience from there, plus our general manager was [general manager] in Doha. So we have quite a few opinions and we just had to narrow them down and figure what it is that we wanted to do.”

But hospitality is not the only industry to be affected by the change in working practices.

Shopping has long been a pastime during Ramadan.

“It’s part of life and culture here and we are very much part of that. We embrace it,” says David Macadam, the new chief executive and vice chairman of the Middle East Council of Shopping Centres  and the International Council of Shopping Centres for the Mena region.

“So how we manage the rest of the logistical issues, how you operate a shop and things, they are all part of the complex components of life in this region.”

For the clothing chain Giordano, that means spreading staff around its extensive network of stores in the Emirates. During the fasting period there tends to be less traffic in the malls, so it does not need as many employees.

“Maybe we have to do it in three shifts because the mall is open until 2am,” says Ishwar Chugani, managing director of Giordano Middle East.

“It’s just a matter of reallocating people depending on where we expect traffic, so some of the busier malls like Mall of the Emirates, Deira City or Dubai Mall, that’s where we have more people in the fasting period,” he adds.

The chain also ensures it can bring staff in from another store within half an hour’s notice if it receives an unexpected influx of customers.

“It is a matter of reallocating and readjusting resources. It doesn’t make a difference,” he adds.