UK Employment Tribunal: Vegans Protected from Discrimination

By Emma Bartlett, © Charles Russell Speechlys LLP January 6, 2020
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UK Employment Tribunal: Vegans Protected from Discrimination

​A United Kingdom employment tribunal ruled that veganism is a philosophical belief under the Equality Act, meaning that vegans are entitled to protection from discrimination because of this belief.

The plaintiff's belief met the judicial guidelines for identifying a relevant philosophical belief, but also the employer did not dispute that veganism would be capable of protection. He brought a claim against his former employer, League against Cruel Sports, for unlawful discrimination following his dismissal, which the employer said was for gross misconduct.

The plaintiff, an ethical vegan, alerted his employer to the fact that its pension fund invested in companies that carried out animal testing, which was against his belief in veganism. As the company allegedly failed to do anything about it, the plaintiff then alerted colleagues of this fact. He asserted that his subsequent dismissal was because of his philosophical belief in veganism and that this was capable of protection under the Equality Act 2010.

However, the employment tribunal's decision goes against the government's stated contrary opinion that veganism should not be a philosophical belief capable of protection. The government had disagreed with the Equality and Human Rights Commission's (EHRC) view, following the useful Code of Practice published by EHRC to help employees and employers navigate the Equality Act 2010 after it took effect, that veganism was likely to be protected.

This is one of several recent judgments on what might constitute a philosophical belief capable of protection. Recently, a belief in Scottish independence was ruled to amount to a philosophical belief, affording protection from discrimination, following an employment tribunal decision in September 2019. While not all political opinions will amount to a philosophical belief, the next question is whether Brexit related claims will follow! 

Even without the employer's agreement that veganism was likely to be a relevant philosophical belief, this lifestyle choice meets the following aspects of the judicial guidelines in that:

  • The belief in veganism is more than an opinion based on real or perceived logic, or information or lack of information available. It was clear the employee held this belief as he made lifestyle choices around it such as eating a plant-based diet and excluding all forms of animal exploitation (e.g., avoiding wearing leather goods).
  • The belief held a similar status or cogency to a religious belief as the employee centered his life around it.
  • The belief is worthy of respect in a democratic society,
  • The belief was not incompatible with human dignity and not in conflict with other fundamental rights.

Employers need to be aware that when an employee has taken action—or omitted to do so—because of a belief that he or she holds, that irrespective of whether the employer also holds that belief, the employer should be careful not to take action against the employee because of that belief as it might be unlawful to do so.

The plaintiff had less than two years' service, but if his dismissal was because of his belief he will be entitled to loss of earnings as well as, potentially, damages for injury to feelings. The tribunal has yet to rule on whether the plaintiff was dismissed for a nondiscriminatory reason.

Emma Bartlett is an attorney with Charles Russell Speechlys LLP in London. © 2020 Charles Russell Speechlys LLP. All rights reserved. Reposted with permission of Lexology.

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