Most employers should be familiar with the law surrounding discrimination; the Equality Act 2010 safeguards employees in their workplaces and outlines nine protected characteristics, namely, gender, race, gender transition, sexual orientation, age, pregnancy and maternity, disability, marriage and civil partnership, and religion or beliefs. An employee has the right not be discriminated against or harassed because of their protected characteristics.
The characteristic of beliefs and what they constitute has always been controversial and the Tribunals have decided a number of cases in this regard. The precedent from the Employment Appeal Tribunal is that, in order to be protected by the Equality Act:
- The belief must be genuinely held.
- It must be a belief, not an opinion or viewpoint.
- It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour.
- It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance.
- It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
- It must “have a similar status or cogency to a religious belief”.
- It need not be shared by others.
Using these factors, environmentalism and a belief in climate change has fallen within the remit of the Equality Act, as has an anti-foxhunting belief, a belief that lying is always wrong and a belief in public service for the common good.
A recent case has also considered whether vegetarianism qualifies as a philosophical belief therefore worthy of protection by the Equality Act.
In the case of Conisbee v Crossley Farms Ltd an employee attempted to sue his former employer, having resigned after five just months of employment. He claim that his belief in “vegetarianism” ought to qualify as a philosophical belief and that he had been harassed on the grounds of this belief at his workplace.
In this case, the Tribunal accepted the Claimant’s passionate belief in vegetarianism. However, they stated that vegetarianism did not concern a substantial enough aspect of human life to qualify as a protected philosophical belief; merely holding a belief that related to an important aspect of human life was not enough in itself. The Tribunal’s reasoning was that vegetarianism was not about human life nor about human behaviour but rather, it founded itself as a lifestyle choice. It also did not have similar status or cogency as a religious belief did. Meaning, it was a belief that did not qualify for protection under the Equality Act and as a result the Claimant’s claim was rejected at the Tribunal.
However, the Tribunal felt compelled to comment on veganism, hinting it may qualify as a belief that was worthy of protection under the Equality Act. “Why veganism and not vegetarianism?” You may ask. The answer to this comes down to reasoning, or “why” someone might be vegan. On the face of it, the reasons for someone to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle can be extremely varied and was not always rooted in a belief but also caused by personal taste or health concerns. However, with regards to a vegan lifestyle, the Tribunal indicated that vegans have the same underlying motives and belief for their veganism; namely, all vegans hold specific concerns and beliefs in relation to animals, their killing and uphold such beliefs to climate change too. As a result, it was deemed that there was a clear and succinct belief within a vegan lifestyle, which did not consistently appear in a vegetarian lifestyle.
No further case law or any legal precedents have been set or established on veganism, but this clearly is a niche topic within the law that certainly holds an interesting future.
In order to ensure that, at your workplace, you don’t behave in any discriminatory nature towards vegans, you should always ensure that they have equality of opportunity (e.g. they are not excluded from any work events or networking opportunities) and ensure that vegans are not harassed for any such beliefs.
In the case of Conisbee the Claimant alleged that he had been called “gay” because he was a vegetarian. You should ensure that workplaces are not hostile environments and that you have an Anti-Bullying and Harassment policy in place to ensure employees know how to behave. Quite aside from the vegetarian issue, here at Thrive Law, we think that if more comments had been made about the Claimant being “gay” because he was a vegetarian, there could have been sexual orientation discrimination in this matter.
Case update (February 2020):
As we enter into 2020, the ritual of ‘Veganuary’ begins, which usually constitutes the practice of a vegetarianism and/or veganism lifestyle for at least the month of January, prompted by the pressures of a new year and a health kick which most of us are embracing. On 3rdJanuary Sky News published an article stating that ethical veganism was in fact a philosophical belief due to a recent case outcome, prompting us to update this blog. However, despite news outlets’ assertions otherwise, the law has not changed and veganism is not necessarily protected in any new way. There is no change to the advice of this blog because:
- The Employer within this case had never seriously challenged the Claimant on a protected belief as this case was more so related to gross misconduct issues; the Employer in fact conceded on the protected characteristic point. If they had not done so, there is every chance that the Claimant’s claim would have been thrown out at a preliminary hearing as the Tribunal may not have accepted that his veganism was protected.
- Not all ethical vegans are likely to be protected by the Equality Act 2010, this is because the Claimant’s beliefs in the new 2020 case were wide and all encompassing.The Claimant was not your average vegan and his lifestyle went far beyond merely dietary choices; he had removed all animal products from his life, save for some woolly clothes, leather belts and shoes (which he used until they were worn out). He would exhaust all possible alternatives to him using any products or services to ensure that he contributed as little as possible to the perceived suffering of sentient beings, going as far as directly contacting food manufacturers to check whether their food was genuinely vegan.The Claimant also tried to avoid sitting on leather seats or holding leather straps, and he gave evidence that he could not live with anyone who was not also a vegan and could not allow non-vegan food into his home. He also stated that, if his journeys were within an hour walking distance, he would walk there to avoid accidental crashes with insets or birds when taking a bus or public transport. He avoided, in so far as possible, using paper notes as cash, as they were manufactured using animal products.Other vegans, especially those who only restrict their dietary requirements, are unlikely to have the exact same set of beliefs as the Claimant and any protection would be decided on a case-by-case basis.
- The decisions made by an Employment Tribunal are not binding on other Tribunals or other employers, rather. This means that (far aside from what the news is reporting) veganism has not been given any new protected status. The position remains the same, if a Claimant thinks their veganism is such that it amounts to a protected belief then they would have to prove it in the Tribunal or (as happened in this recent case) the Employer would have to concede that this is the case.
If you require any assistance with your bullying and harassment policies, or if you are perhaps being bullied because of your religion or belief, or for any other reason, then please do not hesitate to get in touch.
Written by Uthman El-Dharrat and Alicia Collinson