On the subject of worker protection, there have been recent calls for a wider understanding of what can be considered a protected characteristic and to which extent this can impact organizational policy.
As an example, take the Veganuary movement, which since 2014 has been advocating for veganism. The movement runs annual campaigns that encourage the public to experiment first-hand what it’s like to follow a vegan diet for one month. The number of participants rose to 400,000 in January 2020. Along this is the substantial rise in full-time veganism, which in the UK has grown by a staggering 360% over the past decade.
The question is how does the widespread adoption of veganism affect the workplace? As HR professionals in the UK know, there’s an ongoing debate as to whether veganism can be considered a protected characteristic. This stems from a notorious case that was taken to Employment Tribunals in 2019. The case revolved around a claim of discrimination in the workplace raised by Mr Jordi Casamitjana, following the termination of his contract with the League Against Cruel Sports.
At the heart of the case was Mr Casamitjana’s allegation of unfair dismissal on the grounds that he had been laid off due to his ethical (vegan) beliefs. The case drew a great deal of attention, as the implications of the ruling would have a direct impact on HR practices. The core question was whether ethical veganism could fall under the definition of protected characteristic as per the Equality Act 2010. A ruling in favour of Mr Casamitjana would turn this into a landmark case, since it would equate veganism with a religious belief.
Due to the repercussion of this case in the media and in HR circles, several studies were carried out follow up on the matter. For example, a 2019 survey interviewed 1,000 vegans and found that 45% of them claimed to feel discriminated against in their workplace. Not only that, but a further 31% stated that they had been unfairly treated or harassed due to their identifying as vegans. Upon further discussion and after contrasting these claims with employers’ views, it appears that the unwillingness to accommodate vegan dietary requirements was being construed as a discriminatory practice. Some employers cited the additional cost and complex logistics of catering to vegans, but a small percentage also admitted they would not hire someone who identified as vegan.
When faced with such a statement, many HR and legal professionals will be quick to point out that it could constitute a breach of the Equality Act 2010. At this point it’s important to note that the Casamitjana case and its potential implications hinge on the concept of veganism as an ethical choice or a belief system. This definition of veganism clashes with an alternative public perception (which according to the survey mentioned above is shared by some employers) that sees veganism as a choice that has more to do with being trendy or loosing weight than with ethical beliefs.
The matter of whether veganism should be a protected characteristic has been partially settled. In early 2020, a pre-hearing on Mr Casamitjana’s case ruled that ethical veganism was deemed a philosophical belief that had to be protected from discrimination in compliance with current legislation. But it’s worth highlighting that the judgement does indeed make a qualitative distinction between ethical veganism and dietary veganism, and that protection from discrimination cannot be extended to the latter.
The ruling calls for HR professionals and organizations to develop internal policies that account for the semantic distinction between following plant-based diet as opposed to leading a vegan lifestyle, while keeping an eye out on further legal resolutions on this subject.