Ethical veganism should be seen as a philosophical belief by employers, as stated by a ruling made in a landmark legal case last year.
Vegan employee Jordi Casamitjana brought the case against his former employer, League Against Cruel Sports. Mr Casamitjana claimed that he was sacked by the animal welfare charity after he disclosed that it invested pension funds in firms involved in animal testing.
The judge ruled that ethical vegans should now be entitled to similar legal protections in British workplaces as those who hold religious beliefs.
Veganism is more than just what people eat; it can encompass all aspects of an individual’s life, as can be seen in the definition of veganism on the vegan society website:
“Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”
Ethical vegans eat a plant-based diet, but also go a step further and try to avoid contact with any products derived from any form of animal exploitation. This includes not wearing clothing made of wool or leather and not using products tested on animals.
This preliminary hearing ruling does not settle Mr Casamitjana’s claim to have been unfairly dismissed (that will be decided later) but it does make for an important development in equality law about what constitutes a philosophical belief.
So, what constitutes a philosophical belief?
To qualify as a philosophical belief, the tribunal judge had to be sure that ethical veganism is a belief that is:
- Genuinely held
- To a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour
- Attaining a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance
- Worthy of respect in a democratic society, not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others; and
- Not an opinion or viewpoint merely based on the present state of information available
It was felt that ethical veganism did meet these requirements, and, as such, the tribunal ruled that ethical veganism is a philosophical belief and so enjoys the same protection as other philosophical beliefs under the Equality Act 2010. This means that people who practice ethical veganism should be entitled to similar legal protections in the workplace as those who hold religious beliefs.
The tribunal judge found that ethical veganism qualifies as a philosophical belief as it satisfies the test that is ‘important’ and ‘worthy’ of respect in a democratic society.
What are protected characteristics?
Protected characteristics are well known in employment law. The basic premise is that employers do not discriminate – or allow their workforce (for which they will likely be liable) to discriminate – against people because of their protected characteristic. This should be enshrined in equality and diversity policies and ingrained in a workforce through regular training.
This is important because a recent survey that included 1,000 vegan employees and employers showed that:
- 45pc of vegans have, at one time or another; felt discriminated against by their employers
- 31pc of vegans felt harassed or unfairly treated because of their veganism
- 48pc of employers did nothing to accommodate their vegan employees
- 71pc of employees would prefer that ‘non-meat eaters’ refrain from discussing their lifestyle choices
- 18pc of employers offered vegan dishes
- 96pc of vegans had to sit on leather furniture
- 86pc of vegans were only given soap to wash their hands with that had been tested on animals
Of those employers who did accommodate for their vegan employees, one third said it was costly or difficult with 21pc saying they feared making a mistake.
Key steps to take
It should be noted that this case was heard at an employment tribunal so is not legally binding, as say, an appeal court or employment appeal tribunal.
> See also: What happens if your small business is taken to an employment tribunal?
Instead, it provides guidance for the way that other tribunals will decide what a philosophical belief is. However, it would be wise for businesses to take this opportunity to ensure that internal workplace policies, training and practices are updated to ensure that they do not fall foul of the Equality Act 2010.
There may well be a surge of discrimination claims following the statement by the Vegan Society. There are some 600,000 vegans in the UK alone and some will be encouraged to bring claims against their employers for direct or indirect detrimental discriminatory treatment because of their veganism.
So, it is a good idea to help ensure any ethical vegan employees you do have feel supported and happy at work.
Policies and procedures
The best way to minimise the risk of problems arising in the workplace is to make sure that you have well drafted policies and procedures in place, ensuring both you and your employees know where you stand.
Policies can relate to a range of issues, including:
- Discipline and grievances
- Sickness and absence
- Annual leave
- Family friendly policies
- Health and safety
- Equality and diversity
- Discrimination and harassment
- Data protection
- Email policies
If you don’t already have policies in place, then it is certainly something you should consider without delay. Even if you do have established policies, now is an ideal time to review them and ensure they are up to date with the latest rulings.
Run regular training sessions
One way to help ensure your policies and procedures are understood and adhered to is to run regular training sessions. In light of this tribunal ruling, now is an ideal time to plan in a training session on discrimination and inclusivity.
This will help employees to understand what constitutes discrimination and how they can help ensure they are not inadvertently discriminating against colleagues. It will also help send a message that any ethical vegan employees should feel supported at work.
Review your business processes
If possible, it may also be prudent to review other processes. For example, re-thinking the food options available in your work area or checking that washing or cleaning products or furniture are animal exploitation or cruelty free.
Nick Hobden is partner and head of employment at Thomson Snell & Passmore
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