In a landmark ruling in January 2020, an Employment Tribunal found that a claimant’s ethical veganism qualified as a “philosophical belief”, and therefore, should be protected by law.
Under the Equality Act 2010, it is unlawful to discriminate against an individual because of their religion or philosophical belief.
The case, brought to Tribunal by vegan Jordi Casamitjana who claimed he had been sacked by the League Against Cruel Sports for his ethical veganism, led to the ruling that ethical vegans should henceforth be entitled to similar protections in the workplace as those who hold religious beliefs.
What is Veganism vs Ethical Veganism?
A vegan will not consume or use animal products.
Some people follow a vegan diet where they eat plant-based foods and do not consume meat, fish and bi-products such as dairy, eggs and honey. An ethical vegan, however, is someone who avoids all forms of animal exploitation as part of their lifestyle, from what they consume to what they wear or how they use their money; such as not wearing wool or leather, or investing in or buying from companies that carry out or support animal testing. They would also decline to visit zoos or environments where they consider animal exploitation takes place.
A Landmark Ruling
Mr Casamitjana, during the course of his role at the League Against Cruel Sports, raised concerns with his employers on his discovery that they were investing pension funds in companies involved in animal testing. When they failed to take action on his concerns, he disclosed the information to his colleagues. This led to his dismissal for gross misconduct. The initial ruling was to determine if ethical veganism should be classed as a protected characteristic, not whether Mr Casamitijana’s dismissal was due to discrimination.
Judge Robin Postle at the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) ruled that ethical veganism qualifies as a philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010, because it satisfied several criteria:
● It was genuinely held;
● It was not just an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available;
● It related to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
● It attained a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance;
● It was worthy of respect in a democratic society;
● It was not incompatible with human dignity; and
● It was not in conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
The League Against Cruel Sports argued that it was “factually wrong” to link Mr Casamitjana’s dismissal to his veganism, but did not argue the judgement that ethical veganism should be protected.
Why is This Case Important for Employers?
This case and its ruling highlights some long-held negative feelings amongst vegans, and a gap in awareness amongst employers.
In a survey by Crossland Employment Solicitors of 1000 vegan employees and 1000 employers, conducted prior to the landmark ruling, it was found that 45% of vegan employees felt discriminated against by their employer, while 31% felt they were harassed in the workplace or treated unfairly due to their veganism.
Meanwhile, 78% of employers said that they catered for vegetarian employees’ diets and beliefs, but 48% admitted to not accommodating their vegan employees in terms of vegan options in their canteens or toiletries.
Critically, the survey also found that 74% of employers were not aware that ‘philosophical beliefs’ are protected under employment law, by way of the Equality Act 2010. Although this survey came before the ruling, the case was due at Tribunal later that year, and the fact that case law had already determined that belief in man-made climate change amounted to a philosophical belief, it was almost certain that veganism would follow suit.
If an employee made mocking or derogatory comments about another person, based on that person’s sex, race or religion, there would be no question that immediate and effective action should be taken against the employee. Likewise, when it comes to veganism in your workplace, it is important to be considerate and take such beliefs seriously, while taking action against any negative or derogatory commentary about vegans.
Many simple steps can be taken to create a workplace more embracing of vegans, such as including ‘vegan’ on equality monitoring forms, vegan meal options in on-site catering and vending machines, and careful consideration of the sourcing of materials for uniforms and toiletries for facilities. Be transparent with your employees to avoid any ‘hearsay’ or confusion.
Ultimately, the onus is on employers to do everything possible to avoid direct or indirect discrimination against vegan employees, and this landmark ruling will certainly help enforce that going forward.