Recently, indirect religious discrimination has been in the news – with a bit of a twist.
With the ever-growing awareness for the environment, there is demand for businesses to be more environmentally-friendly. But it is less clear which strategies cross the line between forcing views on employees and those that encourage employees to make changes to their lifestyle.
Recently, a global company ‘WeWork’ (known for providing services to entrepreneurs)) have informed employees that meat, pork or poultry will not be an available option at company events as part of a company move to become more eco-friendly. WeWork go further and say that employees will be exempt from being reimbursed if they do choose a meat option.
Co-founder Miguel McKelvey’s view is that this contributes towards environmental protection and thus, keep up with the times. Research suggests over 25% of evening meals consumed by the UK population are meat- free. Mr McKelvey has said that the company could save “more than 15 million animals by 2013 by eliminating meat at our events.
The usual schemes are aimed at reducing plastic waste, planting additional trees etc.
Whilst WeWork’s bold move has good intentions, this arguably infringes an employee’s personal choice. Wework must be careful to ensure that this new policy does not disadvantage employees who don’t share the same viewpoint. This is because philosophical views are protected in the same way as religious views. Beliefs such as humanism, pacifism, vegetarianism and the belief in man-made climate change are all protected. Carnivore employees may well complain that WeWork should alter its policy to remove the disadvantage, or risk being liable for an indirect ‘religious’ discrimination claim.
WeWork do express they are not banning employees from eating meat altogether. However, it is clear that those who wish to do so during work hours are at a financial disadvantage. It seems to us that hosting a vegetarian-only barbecue would probably not place carnivore employees at a disadvantage but that providing a meat option more expensively might, as there is no business reason for it. Our view might be different if the company had an ethical stance to uphold as part of the reason for its existence.
An Employment Appeal Tribunal case (Chatwal v Wandsworth Borough Council) is relevant. Mr Chatwal’s employer introduced a new requirement that staff using the communal kitchen should clean the kitchen surfaces and the fridge. Staff members would occasionally come into contact with meat or meat products.
Mr Chatwal told his employer that compliance with the new requirement would conflict with his religious belief as a Sikh. Although, he was happy to clean other areas of the kitchen, he refused to clean the fridge. He was told he was not allowed to use the kitchen any longer.
Mr Chatwal lost his claim of indirect religious discrimination at the employment tribunal as he had failed to show that at least some Sikhs shared the same religious belief about touching meat. But he got his evidence about the beliefs of the Sikh religion together for the appeal. Expert evidence and letters from significant members of the Sikh society were relied on and the appeal allowed.
By Olivia Ferriday
Image used under CC courtesy of Jeremy Keith