When beliefs extend beyond Veganuary

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Record numbers signed up to ditch meat for this year’s Veganuary Challenge, but those who pursue ethical veganism can have protected beliefs which employers should take care to safeguard.

The Vegan Society describe veganism as “a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude … exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment”.

It’s important to note that not every vegan is an ‘ethical vegan’. While some people follow a vegan diet, free of meat, fish, and animal products like milk and eggs, ethical vegans also pursue a lifestyle free of all animal exploitation. So, for example, an ethical vegan would avoid buying personal care products from companies which test on animals, and would not wear or purchase wool or leather.

Such beliefs caused a clash when long-standing ethical vegan Jordi Casamitjana challenged his employer, The League Against Cruel Sports, on the issue of how pension funds were invested. The League is an animal welfare charity which campaigns against sports such as fox hunting or bullfighting.

Mr Casamitjana was a qualified zoologist who had dedicated his life to helping animals in need.  He became a strict vegan in 2000, instantly transitioning to a 100% vegan diet, and gradually removing all animal products from his home. He would take “all reasonable steps to ascertain whether a product or service that he consumes complies with ethical veganism”.

On joining the League, Mr Casamitjana was enrolled into the organisation’s pension scheme. He later discovered that the fund was investing in companies known to engage in animal testing, such as pharmaceutical or tobacco companies. After objecting to this, and with no change in practice forthcoming, Mr Casamitjana wrote to colleagues setting out his discovery. When he was later dismissed, he claimed this was due to his ethical veganism, although the League argued that the dismissal was on conduct grounds.

The case was first heard by the Employment Tribunal, at which the focus was on whether ethical veganism was a philosophical belief capable of protection under the Equality Act 2010. The Act prevents direct and indirect discrimination based on protected characteristics, which include gender reassignment, age, disability, race, sexual orientation, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, sex, and religion or belief. So, could ethical veganism amount to a philosophical belief, and therefore a protected characteristic?

To satisfy the definition of a philosophical belief, ethical veganism had to pass a series of tests established in case law. These include whether the philosophical belief was formed in respect of a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour; has attained a level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance;, and could be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity or in conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

In giving his ruling, Employment Judge Robin Postle was satisfied and found “it easy to conclude that there is overwhelming evidence…that ethical veganism is capable of being a philosophical belief and thus a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010”.  Thus, those holding such beliefs would be protected against discrimination and harassment.

This ruling distinguished ethical veganism from vegetarianism, which was tested in an earlier case – Conisbee v Crossley Farms Limited & Others. Here, the Employment Tribunal decided that vegetarianism was not a philosophical belief which qualified for protection under the Equality Act 2010. It was held that vegetarianism did not concern a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour, but was rather a lifestyle choice;  it did not attain the necessary level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance because the reason for being vegetarian can differ greatly; and it did not have a similar cogency or status to religious beliefs.

The decision in the case of Mr Casamitjana does not have a binding effect on other tribunals, as each case will depend on its own facts, but the case demonstrates that ethical veganism can amount to a protected philosophical belief. This highlights the need for employers to continually review their practices and policies to ensure they are not discriminating against any employees because of their beliefs.

The implications are perhaps more significant given the continued rise in popularity of veganism.  Figures suggest there are as many as 2.2m vegans in the UK currently, compared to just 150,000 in 2014. In part, that rise has been inspired by academic reports which illustrate how switching to a plant-based diet could help fight climate change.

Whilst the ruling may appear to open the floodgates for vegan-related campaigns by employees – such as arguing against the use or development of products containing animal ingredients – tribunals will be taking a measured approach in deciding whether such issues are discriminatory. As an example, a case involving a Muslim employee, who argued his beliefs prevented him handling alcoholic products, was unsuccessful when heard by the tribunal.

Best practice is to ensure that vegan beliefs are accommodated in the same way as other beliefs, such as ensuring that any food provision for employees in canteens takes account of vegan preferences. Staff training should be kept up to date as to what constitutes discrimination and unacceptable behaviour, and employees should have an identified point of contact to report incidents of discrimination.

This case reflects the ongoing need for business recruitment and working practices to keep pace with both the law and changing attitudes across society. Failure to do so is no defence when it comes to employers providing appropriate protection for employees.

Should you have any employment-related queries or concerns please do not hesitate to contact a member of our team, we will be only too happy to help.