Veganuary: are vegans protected from discrimination?

Is veganism a 'protected characteristic' under the Equality Act 2010?

Shopping Basket of Fresh Vegetables and Fruit signifying vegan and veganism

Veganism is very much at the forefront this month, with Veganuary encouraging people to try going vegan for January, whether as a new year diet or a larger lifestyle change.

Promotion of vegan living has gained a lot of traction in recent years, perhaps due to social media, but certainly due to projects like Veganuary.  The principles and concepts of veganism are becoming more familiar to the general public.  Where it may once have been seen as slightly offbeat or eccentric, now, given celebrity ambassadors and endorsements, you might even say it is trendy.  The underlying principles behind veganism should be distinguished, however, from mere trends or new year diets.

It is not the purpose of this article to promote veganism – I’m not a vegan and have no vested interests here.  In the context of Veganuary and the increased interest in veganism that it has generated, I wanted to examine from an employment law perspective whether and how that increased awareness might impact on workplace discrimination law.

Is veganism covered by the Equality Act 2010?

A bit of law I’m afraid.  Under the Equality Act 2010 (“the Act”), discrimination is prohibited on 9 grounds, called “protected characteristics”.  These are: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy or maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation.  Employees are protected from treatment that is directly or indirectly discriminatory, from being harassed, and from being victimised, because of one or more of those protected characteristics.

The question is, does the “belief” part of the “religion or belief” protected characteristic, which includes both religious and philosophical beliefs, provide protection to vegans?

We need to examine, therefore, whether veganism is a “belief” for the purposes of the Act.  The Employment Appeal Tribunal gave guidance on what amounts to a “belief” in the case of Grainger Plc v Nicholson:

  • The belief must be genuinely held;
  • It must be a belief, not an opinion or a viewpoint based on the present state of information available;
  • It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
  • It must attain a level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance;
  • It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not be incompatible with human dignity, and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others;
  • It must have a similar status or cogency to a religious belief, though need not be an “-ism;”
  • It need not be shared by others;
  • While “support of a political party” does not of itself amount to a philosophical belief, a belief in a political philosophy or doctrine, such as Socialism, Marxism, or free-market Capitalism, might qualify; and
  • A philosophical belief may be based on science.  If Creationism (based on faith) is protected, Darwinism (based on science) must be capable of being a philosophical belief

Veganism is an excellent example of a non-religious belief that can go right to the core of a person’s way of life, to direct what they eat and wear, where they shop, and how they consume goods and services.  It’s more than not eating meat and dairy products.  But does that make it a “protected characteristic” for the purposes of the Act?

Based on the factors above, to have a chance of being protected, a philosophical belief must be more than a passing interest; should be respected by society at large (even if they do not agree with it); and have a similar depth of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance to a religious belief.  Arguably, veganism could potentially fall within the criteria set out above.

In my view, where an employee is a committed vegan, and their life is significantly driven by vegan principles, the greater the chance that they would be protected by the Act. At the other end of the scale, an employee may have participated in Veganuary, but if that was a one-off short term diet, and they do not follow vegan principles in their lifestyle generally, they are less likely to overcome the hurdles to gain protection.

What can an employer do to prevent discrimination?

From an employer’s perspective, therefore, what should be done to avoid issues, and what are the warning signs?  The suggestions below are relevant at a general level, not just specifically in relation to veganism.

  • Introduce and regularly review an Equality and Diversity policy that deals with all protected characteristics – it does not need to mention veganism, as that is not a protected characteristic in itself;
  • Provide training to staff on all types of discrimination and equality to help establish the defence that the employer has taken all reasonable steps to prevent discrimination;
  • Train managers in how to avoid discrimination and how to deal with complaints from staff about inappropriate behaviour;
  • Ensure staff feel comfortable raising any complaints and that they will be taken seriously;
  • Take action to deal promptly and appropriately with grievances about inappropriate behaviour: it is often when problems are allowed to fester and expand that the more serious, costly and time-consuming claims arise.  Catching and dealing with a grievance early can show that the employer is following through on their policies and keen to take steps to repair damaged relationships before it is too late;
  • Promptly discipline employees who have behaved inappropriately; and
  • Specifically in relation to veganism, ensure that due account is taken, by, for instance, asking for any special dietary requirements for catered events – this should flush out any food allergies as well as vegan or other special diets, so has multiple benefits in terms of covering off employer’s obligations as to health and safety as well as avoiding discrimination.

In terms of employment issues around veganism itself, it remains unclear whether veganism will be regarded as a philosophical belief.  A case is due to be heard in the Employment Tribunal in March 2019, which will consider whether the claimant employee was dismissed because of his veganism and whether his veganism amounts to a “belief” under the Act.  Hopefully, therefore, it will soon become clear whether the characteristics protected under discrimination law are expanding to include veganism.

Want to know more? Our specialist employment team can help.

Please note the contents contained in this article are for general guidance only and reflection the position at time of posting. Legal advice should be sought before taking action in relation to specific matters.

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