The case of Royal Mail Group PLC versus Donald Holden, which was heard in the Manchester Industrial Tribunal on 9 and 10 March, pitted a large, wealthy corporation, with a multi-million pound turnover, against a sole individual, Donald Holden, whose only resources were his honest integrity and his dogged determination to stand up for his rights. Donald is a member of the Odinist Fellowship, and we were able to put him in touch with a first-class barrister, Adrian Davies, an observer member of the Fellowship, who, I have to say, made mincemeat of the Royal Mail’s witnesses in court. I, myself, was present on both days of the two-day hearing, and presented evidence as a witness on Donald’s behalf.
Whilst listening to the tribunal proceedings, I could not help thinking of Franz Kafka’s disturbing, German-language novel, “The Trial”, in which the hero gets embroiled in a surreal nightmare of paranoia-inducing, legal proceedings and insane bureaucracy. But by comparison with Kafka’s narrative, it is the Holden case, which reads like far-fetched, surrealist fiction. Yet, sadly, the sorry society, in which we live, produces such travesties week in, week out.
What are the facts of this case? Many of you will be surprised, as I was, to learn that, increasingly, employers with a large proportion of Muslim staff are being obliged to set aside rooms in the workplace for Muslim prayers, and to allow their employees to take time away from their duties to engage in these prayers. At the Mail Centre where Donald worked, there was just such a room, which was designated as a “Multicultural Room”. That is important, because never, at any time, did the Royal Mail claim that the Room was solely for Muslim use, or that non-Muslims might not use it for their own purposes.
And the simple point, that Donald was evidently trying to make is that he too, as an Odinist, and as a non-Muslim, had the right of access to the facilities, which, in theory, the management had set aside for all staff, but which, in practice, were being used as an exclusive Muslim Club Room. Donald had the audacity to enter the Room, as if he had an equal right to it as any other employee, in order to spend a few moments in silent prayer; and just as the Muslim employees used the Room to store their Korans and prayer calendars, Donald, himself, presumed to have the right to leave his sheets of paper, containing the text of our introductory booklet, “All About Odinism”, downloaded from the internet, and some images of Odin, in the Room, on a couple of plastic chairs placed next to a sink.
One item of evidence, which I have seen, is a book used to sign in and out for the key to this Multicultural Room. Donald’s visits to the Room were always of short duration, and mainly took place on a Saturday, when the Mail Centre was almost empty, and when his security duties obliged him to patrol the building to check all was in order. I was able to see for myself, that certain names and signatures, evidently belonging to Muslim employees, recurred time and time again in the signing-in book, sometimes three or four times in a single shift, and that the duration of their stay was often half an hour, or more. Some would call this “skiving”. It is true that pious Muslims are obliged to pray five times a day, and those times are usually considered to be dawn, morning, noon, evening and nightfall. So it seems remarkable that some of the Muslim employees were trying to fit them all into one shift. But the Royal Mail’s managers weren’t interested in that! They were more interested in what Donald was getting up to in the Muslim Club Room – sorry, Multicultural Room!
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