Business

Ethical veganism and workplace discrimination' – how will this affect employers?

Jordi Casamitjana brought the landmark case against the League Against Cruel Sports

A FEW weeks ago, an English employment tribunal ruled in the case of Jordi Casamitjana v the League Against Cruel Sports that ethical veganism is a philosophical belief that should be protected under anti-discrimination legislation. So, how will this decision impact on employment law in Northern Ireland?

The case was brought under the Equality Act 2010, which does not apply in Northern Ireland. But there are broadly similar provisions under the Fair Employment and Treatment Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 (FETO) which relate to the right not to be discriminated against for religion or similar philosophical belief or political opinion.

The background to the case is Mr Casamitjana was employed by the League Against Cruel Sports until he was dismissed for gross misconduct. He claims he was dismissed after disclosing his employer invested in pension funds which carried out animal testing.

Mr Casamitjana brought a claim under the Equality Act 2010, asserting his dismissal was due to his philosophical belief in ethical veganism. The question for the employment tribunal to determine in this case was whether Mr Casamitjana's belief in ethical veganism amounted to a philosophical belief. The League Against Cruel Sports conceded the point, nevertheless the tribunal needed to determine the issue.

Under the Equality Act, for something to amount to a philosophical belief and therefore a protected characteristic, it must meet the following criteria:

1.The belief must be genuinely held and not a mere opinion or viewpoint.

2.The belief must be a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.

3.The belief must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance and be worth respect in a democratic society.

4.The belief must be compatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others

The judge found ethical veganism is a philosophical belief under the Act. The judge concluded that ethical veganism was "important" and "worthy" of respect in a democratic society.

The decision by the tribunal to confirm ethical veganism as a philosophical belief is not a surprising one. Whilst the case is being highlighted as a landmark, it was not a point that was even contested by the employer in the case. The case confirms, not surprisingly, that ethical veganism is a belief that is worthy of respect in a democratic society.

It is important to remember the decision in this case will not be binding on the Belfast industrial tribunal and indeed the relevant legislation is different. However, the effect of the decision and surrounding publicity is that employees and employers should be more aware that this is potentially an issue that could result in legal proceedings in the employment tribunal.

Whilst the 'philosophical belief' provisions under FETO do not appear to have been utilised to any significant degree in Northern Ireland – this could soon change given the publicity of this case not only for ethical veganism but perhaps other beliefs also.

Employers should therefore take care to ensure their workforce understand ethical veganism so that detrimental, misinformed or unconscious remarks or assumptions are not directed at or attributed to ethical vegan employees.

:: Andrew Lightburn (andrew.lightburn@dwf.law) is senior associate (employment) at DWF Belfast (www.dwf.law)

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