A case for protecting vegans at work?
In a landmark case heard last month, the Employment Tribunal will soon determine whether ethical veganism should be a protected belief under the Equality Act 2010. As the trend towards veganism increases, what lessons can employers take away?
Jordi Casamitjana is a self-proclaimed ‘ethical vegan’ who was allegedly dismissed last year by the animal welfare charity, League Against Cruel Sports, after blowing the whistle on how his employer was investing its pension funds in companies involved with animal testing. Mr Casamitjana is claiming that, as a result of his dismissal, he was discriminated against on the basis of his ethical vegan beliefs. His employer, however, insists his dismissal was as a result of gross misconduct, not his vegan beliefs.
“Religion or Belief” is one of nine protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, along with age, sex, disability, race, sexual orientation, pregnancy and maternity, gender reassignment and marriage and civil partnership. It is unlawful for an employer to treat an employee less favourably because of their religion or belief (direct discrimination) or to implement a policy, criterion or practice that disadvantages those of a certain belief (indirect discrimination). So too is it unlawful to harass, bully or victimise those because of, or related to, their religion or belief.
Case law has evolved to determine that a protected ‘belief’ extends to philosophical beliefs that are:
1) genuinely held;
2) a belief rather than a mere opinion;
3) a substantial part of one’s life;
4) of a certain level of seriousness and importance; and
5) worthy in a democratic society and do not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
Recently, a belief in man-made climate change was held to be a valid belief under the Equality Act.
Veganism, however, is not (yet) considered to be a philosophical belief. If it is deemed to be, it is likely to only apply to ‘ethical vegans’ whose beliefs satisfy the above test i.e. it is a fundamental part of their life, rather than individuals who simply follow a vegan diet. This may well be a contentious issue in cases going forward.
The growth of veganism in the UK over the past 5 years has been exponential, with numbers more than quadrupling between 2014 and 2019. As the trend develops, so too will workplace discussions – and possibly arguments – about veganism. Indeed a recent workplace survey found that half of vegans feel discriminated against at work. The recent case of the ex-Waitrose magazine editor, William Sitwell, who was forced to resign after joking about “killing vegans” goes to show the level of risk associated with workplace vegan ‘banter’ or ‘vegaphobia’.
Lessons to be learnt?
If Mr Casamitjana is successful in his claim, employers must consider the needs of ethical vegans in the workplace so that they are not treated less favourably because of their beliefs. After all, there is no cap on the potential award for a successful discrimination claim.
Employers will first need to understand what ethical veganism is and establish which employees are ethical vegans. Education and awareness training may be necessary. Employers must consider how vegans are catered for wherever food is provided and perhaps even consider the use of animal based products in the workplace, such as leather sofas and soaps. Importantly, they must ensure vegans are protected from any unwanted conduct as a result of their vegan beliefs. Company policies should be amended accordingly.