An employment tribunal in the UK has held that ethical veganism is a protected characteristic under UK discrimination law.
In the UK an employee is protected from discrimination in the workplace under one of the nine protected characteristics set out in the Equality Act 2010. This includes protection in respect of religion, religious belief and philosophical belief.
The case involves an employee at the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS). He raised concerns that the organisations pension fund invested in some companies that tested products on animals or otherwise infringed the central tenets of his ethical veganism. The disclosure was made first to his manager and then to his colleagues. The employee was summarily dismissed on the grounds that his communications to colleagues derogated from an instruction from management. He claimed that he was dismissed as a result of his belief in ethical veganism. LACS state that he was dismissed for gross misconduct.
The preliminary hearing was held to consider whether ethical veganism constitutes a philosophical belief. Case law has given guidance on the definition of philosophical belief and requires that:
- The belief must be genuinely held.
- It must be a belief not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available.
- 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
The case which set out these principles determined that a belief in climate change was potentially capable of amounting to a philosophical belief. More difficulty arises concerning “lifestyle” choices. An employment tribunal has recently held that vegetarianism did not qualify for protection under the Equality Act 2010 as the belief did not concern a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and had not attained a certain level of cogency and importance. However, the view has often been considered that ethical veganism, which extends to all aspects of the individuals life, may fall to be protected.
In this case the employment tribunal held that the claimant’s belief in ethical veganism is protected. This did amount to a belief that had a weighty and substantial aspect of human life in that ethical vegans seek to exclude all forms of animal exploitation including not wearing clothes made of leather or wool and not using products tested on animals. The judge also held that ethical veganism was important and worthy of respect in a democratic society.
The ruling from the employment tribunal does not amount to binding legal precedent. However, employers will have to consider the actions that they take and ensure that they do not discriminate against employees for their beliefs. This may mean for example considering the uniforms that staff are asked to wear or whether they can be required to handle meat if they work in a supermarket. The decision does refer to ethical vegans for whom veganism normally affects every aspect of their lives and therefore those who simply follow a vegan diet or refrain from eating certain products as a lifestyle choice may not be protected.
The employment tribunal will now consider the reason for the employees dismissal and whether he was treated less favourably due to his belief.