One of the most important months in the Islamic calendar, Ramadan is observed as a period of fasting, prayer, reflection and community. During the month, labour laws dictate that people work fewer hours in the day.
For most well-established businesses in the Middle East, Ramadan is not considered to be a challenge when it comes to managing a workforce that is putting in fewer hours and is fasting during the day. But for international companies setting up offices in the Middle East – as many are in the aviation sector – the holy month needs to be approached properly to ensure productivity remains high.
The UAE has recently seen a number of aviation companies from Europe and beyond open offices in Dubai. No doubt their new regional heads will be preparing for altered working cycles thanks to warmer winters and much hotter summers. But how will they set themselves up for their first Ramadan?
One of the best approaches is to look at how some of the most successful companies in the Middle East market manage their operations during the month. Etihad Engineering, the MRO division of Etihad Aviation Group, is one of the largest and best-known companies on the UAE’s aviation circuit.
With a team of more than 2,000 professionals from around the world, Etihad Engineering has a huge and diverse workforce, which includes both Muslims and non-Muslims. Observers from outside of the region might imagine that Ramadan is therefore an immensely complex and challenging time for Etihad Engineering’s management. But for Frederic Dupont, vice president technical sales at Etihad Engineering, Ramadan is simply a part of life that comes around every year.
“Ramadan is not something that has recently cropped up, it has been with us for more than a thousand years,” he says. “It is an integral part of our business and we’ve had to adapt to it from day one.”
While much of Etihad Engineering’s work is taken up by maintaining Etihad Airways’ fleet, its business model relies on attracting third party customers from across the globe, including both Muslim and non-Muslim countries. Airline customers expect value and speed regardless of when they send the aircraft to Etihad Engineering, meaning its performance has to be exceptional at any given time during the year.
Dupont explains that since Etihad was established it has adapted the MRO business so it can offer “a seamless service” to customers regardless of when Ramadan happens. How does the company achieve that?
Number one in Dupont’s list of priorities is following state labour laws and being compliant with regulations. Etihad Engineering, like all companies, has to reduce its compulsory working hours which means setting up shifts and a leave plan intelligently.
Dupont comments: “When we’re talking about our workforce, our technicians and engineers on the floor, they’re not all Muslims. Actually, we probably have less than 40% who are Muslims. A lot of the guys view the period as an opportunity to work more and make more money. Non-Muslims often want the opportunity to work more by choice and they’re paid overtime for it.”
Because Ramadan is so embedded in Etihad Engineering’s culture and its day-to-day set-up, it does not need to implement any additional planning for the month, Dupont says. He knows when it is coming every year and knows how to set the workforce up, for example some shifts are rearranged so that Muslim employees can work in the evening, as is often preferred. But something that never changes is the quality of the work or levels of productivity, says Dupont. The company issues instructions and advice to all its staff during Ramadan and the summer, when working can be particularly tough.
“We have a health and safety department and we issue lots of information and instructions in terms of the rest hours, adjusted break times and so on. We also provide meal support and meal vouchers during Ramadan. And all of these measures are transparent to our customers because it is our cost of doing business. We know Ramadan is happening, we need to make sure customers are coming to us regardless and that we are delivering aircraft on time and on spec, regardless of whether it is Ramadan or not.”
When Etihad Engineering started out and began acquiring customers, some clients naturally asked about productivity levels during the holy month and it was Dupont’s job to explain how the company approaches Ramadan. The period is something Etihad has been addressing for many years now so Dupont considers Ramadan to be a “non-issue” now.
He notes that third party customers are unconcerned by Ramadan and are fully confident in Etihad Engineering’s processes. Rearranged shifts mean that there are usually more people working at night than usual and so the company is able to deliver the same amount of productive hours during Ramadan as the rest of the year.
Dupont comments: “As a company you need to obey by the regulations and the law and do the right thing. But you also need to adapt your operations to ensure your customer doesn’t end up paying for it. That’s what we’ve been doing for years.”
Dupont adds that it can be difficult for companies that are new to the region to adapt because they do not have existing systems in place set up for Ramadan. The necessary adjustments are, for Dupont, Etihad Engineering’s cost of doing business. He reminds us that MRO firms in Europe have to heat their hangars every winter, which is their cost of doing business.
For employers, the holy month is about striking a balance and achieving equilibrium. Companies must remain flexible in their operations and staff management, while also obeying labour laws and industry regulations. What’s more, businesses still need to deliver for customers and maintain productivity levels. Dupont believes this can be achieved more easily when companies build flexibility into their everyday processes so that nothing changes when Ramadan approaches. It is all about creating a seamless process.