Europe’s top court has ruled that employers are entitled to ban workers from the ‘visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign’ – including headscarves.
The case was heard by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), Europe’s to court after a Belgian court sought clarification on what is banned by EU anti-discrimination laws.
In the Belgian case, a receptionist working for G4S in Belgium was fired for wearing a headscarf to work. Samira Achbita claimed she was being discriminated against on the grounds of her religion.
The ECJ have stated that a ban must be based on internal company rules requiring all employees to “dress neutrally”. It cannot be based on the wishes of a customer, it said. National courts must make sure this policy of neutrality had been applied equally to all employees.
It is the court’s first decision on the issue of Islamic headscarves at work.
Employees want or feel obliged to wear certain items for religious reasons however sometimes these wishes conflict with an employer’s dress code.
The ruling effectively means that an employee is expected to moderate the exercise of his or her religion in the workplace.
Employers should consider whether a potentially indirectly discriminatory dress code can be objectively justified. In the Belgian case, the court stated that G4S had amended workplace rules to forbid employees “from wearing any visible signs of their political, philosophical or religious beliefs and/or from engaging in any observance of such beliefs”. The court went on to explain that this covered “any manifestation of such beliefs without distinction”, and was therefore not discriminatory, it said.
The EHRC Code contains the following examples:
A hairdresser refuses to employ stylists who cover their hair, believing it is important for them to exhibit their flamboyant haircuts. It is clear that this criterion puts at a particular disadvantage both Muslim women and Sikh men who cover their hair. This may amount to indirect discrimination unless the criterion can be objectively justified. (Paragraph 4.11.)
An employer introduces a “no jewellery” policy in the workplace. This is not for health and safety reasons but because the employer does not like body piercings. A Sikh worker who wears a Kara bracelet as an integral part of her religion has complained about the rule. To avoid a claim of indirect discrimination, the employer should consider allowing an exception to this rule. A blanket ban on jewellery would probably not be considered a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim in these circumstances.
If you feel that you require legal assistance on any of the matters mentioned above, either as an employer or employee, please contact Alex Pearce in our Employment Law Team on email@example.com or call 01708 229444 for expert advice.
This article was written by Alex Pearce, our Employment Law Associate at Pinney Talfourd Solicitors. The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice. Specific legal advice should be taken on each individual matter. The law may have changed since this article was published. This article is based on the law as of March 2017.