'Ethical veganism’ deemed a protected characteristic

In a highly anticipated ruling in the Employment Tribunal, it has been found that an ex-employee who deems himself an ‘ethical vegan’ should be protected from discrimination.

The tribunal ruled that ethical veganism should be characterised as a philosophical belief and in coming to this conclusion, there is now a precedent for ethical veganism to be classed a ‘protected characteristic’ under the Equality Act 2010.

The landmark ruling, made by judge Robin Postle in the Employment Tribunal in Norwich, came in the case of ex-employee Jordi Casamitjana, who claims he was unfairly dismissed by his former employer, the League Against Cruel Sports, due to his beliefs in veganism.

In the first part of a two-part hearing, the judge stated that he was “overwhelmingly satisfied” that Mr Casamitjana’s ethical veganism was a philosophical belief; finding that the beliefs satisfied several tests – including that it is worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity and not conflicting with the fundamental rights of others.

Regardless of whether or not the second part of the Tribunal finds that Mr Casamitjana was dismissed unfairly, the status of ethical veganism has been set, having potentially widespread implications for some employers.

But what are the details of this ruling and what actions should employers take?

Importantly, there is a clear distinction to be made between ethical vegans and those who follow a vegan diet plan. A growing number of people are choosing to follow a plant-based diet – avoiding all animal products such as dairy, eggs, honey, meat and fish. However, not all vegans (or vegetarians for that matter) can be classed as having a philosophical belief. The distinction comes in where avoiding animal-based products is extended into all aspects of an individual’s lifestyle. Ethical vegans will attempt to exclude all forms of animal exploitation from their life – for example, avoiding leather, wool or other animal products in their clothing.

Ethical vegans may also make choices on the companies they buy from or engage with based on their beliefs. The circumstances around Mr Casamitjana’s claim against his former employer were of this nature, being based around the concerns that he raised regarding the investment of his ex-employer’s pension fund in companies involved in animal testing.

To be protected under the Equality Act 2010, an individual will need to be able to demonstrate that their veganism constitutes a philosophical belief, thus being classed as a protected characteristic.

In relation to those who can be classed as ethical vegans, employers may wish to consider the following:

  • Updating their equality and diversity policies to include ethical veganism
  • The provision of vegan-friendly products in staff break out areas and meeting rooms – including milk alternatives and vegan snacks (where snacks are provided)
  • Ensuring that ethical vegans are treated fairly, and that their beliefs are respected. This may require regular training for line managers and staff on equality, diversity and anti-harassment
  • Consider alternatives to wool or leather if providing a work-place uniform
  • For job roles that involve regular interaction with animal-based products, a more in-depth review will likely be required

As an aside note, staff that are enrolled in a company pension scheme have every right to detailed information regarding where their monies are invested, irrespective of whether or not they have a ‘protected characteristic’ under employment law.

This ruling is a useful reminder of the Equality Act 2010 and how far it extends to protecting employees against discrimination and unfair treatment. Religion and belief is one of nine protected characteristics under the Equality Act. The others are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, sex and sexual orientation.

Employers should also remember that the Equality Act applies to every stage of the employment process – from the application stage, right through to the exit of an employee.

For more information on accommodating ethical veganism in your business, or adhering to the Equality Act in general, please get in touch.