Could ethical Veganism land employers with plant-based problems?

By Catherine Kerr, Partner and Head of Employment Law.

The interest in veganism has increased exponentially over the last five years (according to The Vegan Society), so the rising popularity of Veganuary should come as no surprise. During this month, the hype around plant-based eating increases even further, making the latest development in the legal world particularly topical at the moment.

Ethical veganism is now a philosophical belief

As of 3 January 2020, a Norwich employment tribunal ruled that ethical veganism was “important” and “worthy” of respect in a democratic society. Consequently, ethical veganism is now considered a philosophical belief and protected under the Equality Act 2010.

The claimant, Jordi Casamitjana, claimed he was unfairly dismissed by his employer after raising concerns that their pension fund was being invested into companies allegedly involved in animal testing. The Employment Tribunal has not yet ruled on the fairness of his dismissal and, to an extent, that is the more important issue. Just because Mr. Casamitjana’s ethical veganism was found to be a protected characteristic under discrimination law, it does not necessarily follow that he was unfairly dismissed because of it.

So, what is ethical veganism?

The Vegan Society defines ethical veganism as “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as possible, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose”. It is safe to say that ethical veganism goes far beyond just following a vegan diet and taking part in Veganuary doesn’t count!

An ethical vegan will avoid the exploitation of animals for any purpose and their vegan lifestyle will include avoiding food, accessories, clothing, make-up, cleaning products, furniture, and certain forms of transport if it could risk hurting or exploiting an animal. Mr. Casamitjana, would often avoid getting the bus in case insects or birds flew into the windscreen and died. As we said, it goes way beyond just diet.

What does this mean for employers?

Some headlines have described the case as a “landmark ruling”, with scare stories circulating about “flood gates opening” for similar cases.

However, we would encourage employers to take a step-back with us and breathe. Ultimately, the ruling does not affect the law and it does not change the law. The test under the Equality Act to determine a philosophical belief remains the same with a continued emphasis on the question of whether the belief is “strongly and genuinely held”.

This test has been the same since 2010 and judges assess each case on its merits. Like we’ve said, just because an individual has a protected characteristic, it does not necessarily mean they have been discriminated against because of it. Nor should employers be fearful of an employee with a protected characteristic.

Instead, think of this judgment as wise guidance for employers. Consider it an opportunity to think about the products and services you supply and receive. Do you offer vegan food options? Do you have vegan-friendly staff uniform options? Does your office furniture supplier offer wool or leather-free alternatives? Are your products tested on animals?

It’s important to ensure that your work environment is inclusive and also to be patient and listen to any issues raised to make sure you have a happy and secure team. This ruling serves as a reminder of the ever-changing landscape in which we live and work and the importance of being adaptable to and accepting of new changes.

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