While we are all aware that the Equality Act 2010 protects religious belief, rather more interestingly veganism can amount to a protected philosophical belief according to a recent employment tribunal decision in Casamitjana v The League Against Cruel Sports.
Vegans believe animal exploitation is immoral and unethical. Vegans adopt a vegan diet and try to avoid other practices deemed to be exploitative like wearing leather, silk or using products tested on animals.
This tribunal judgement means employers should review how they support ethical vegans in their company and see what changes may be needed.
So what are the main areas affecting day to day work where ethical veganism will be protected? These can be summed up as harassment, food, pensions, victimisation and promotion of veganism which we consider in turn below.
Offensive jokes about ethical vegans can be just as unlawful as offensive jokes about religious beliefs. Most equality policies will refer to "religion or belief", which would already encompass ethical veganism.
Vegans do not consume animal products so employers should review the food offered in staff canteens or at business lunches, to provide for vegan food. Where milk is provided to staff to use in tea or coffee employers should consider offering vegans coconut or almond milk. There is no absolute legal need to cater for vegans but not doing so may constitute indirect (i.e. a practice which applies to everyone equally but which could put ethical vegans and those following particular diets for religious reasons at a particular disadvantage). Indirect discrimination is not unlawful if it can be justified, though do bear in mind that justification is dependent on the situation. Larger employers will find it harder to justify not providing a vegan option for ethical vegans.
Ethical vegans object to investing in companies engaging in animal testing. However, the provision of pension and other benefits is usually considered to be indirectly discriminatory, consequently a lack of vegan friendly substitutes may be justified. However, bear in mind that many employers are now offering ethical investment options.
Leather or toiletries
Ethical vegans may object to leather seating or toiletries tested on animals. As with food, not offering an alternative could be indirect discrimination unless it is justifiable.
Employers may now see more complaints from vegans about the above issues. If a vegan is treated badly for complaining they have been discriminated against because of their vegan beliefs, this is likely to be unlawful victimisation. An employee may claim victimisation even if their original complaint about discrimination was incorrect (unless this was a false allegation made in bad faith). An ethical vegan might not have actually suffered unlawful discrimination, for example because their beliefs do not necessarily meet the required test, or because the employer’s position is justifiable. However, if that employee complains about discrimination and is afterwards treated badly, this may give rise to a victimisation claim.
If an employee behaves inappropriately by trying to get colleagues to alter their behaviour or belief then employers may take reasonable proportionate disciplinary action. This is in fact the main issue in this tribunal case. The employee was dismissed after advising his colleagues about unethical pension investments by their employer. The employer asserts that the employee acted contrary to a reasonable management instruction and was seeking to influence staff pension choices inappropriately which is an issue for the tribunal to yet determine.
Clearly the new year has got off to an auspicious start for vegans!