Am I being discriminated against because I am vegan?

We look at how a landmark legal action has seen veganism protected under the Equality Act.

Plate with scrabble letters spelling VEGAN.

In January last year, we posted about veganism, highlighting a case that was making its way through the employment tribunal system, on the issue of whether veganism was a ‘belief’ and therefore protected under the Equality Act 2010.  A preliminary hearing finally took place in early January 2020 and concluded that the claimant’s ethical veganism is indeed a philosophical belief that qualifies as a protected belief under the Equality Act.

As we explained in that previous post, under the Equality Act 2010 (‘the Act’), discrimination is prohibited on nine 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 and from being harassed or victimised because of one or more of those protected characteristics.

The question was, does the ‘belief’ part of the ‘religion or belief’ protected characteristic (which includes both religious and philosophical beliefs) provide protection to vegans?

Veganism – or at least ‘ethical 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 merely following a vegan diet by not eating meat and dairy products.

The employment tribunal made its decision based on the extent of the impact of the claimant’s veganism on his day to day life.  For instance:

  • Ethical veganism dictates the claimant’s choices from the products and services that he consumes, from cleaning products to electricity suppliers;
  • He has a 100% vegan diet, does not eat animal products, fish or seafood and avoids any foods of which he is unsure;
  • He would not visit zoos, circuses, animal fights or races or any form of spectacle with live animals;
  • He would rather go hungry than consume an animal product;
  • He tries to avoid sitting on leather seats;
  • He participates in animal protection marches, gives speeches at those events, and will be vocal about his support for the ethical vegan lifestyle;
  • His clothes are made of fibres such as cotton, linen, hemp and other plants;
  • He uses cards or coins to pay for purchases, avoiding notes as far as possible, particularly the new versions that have been manufactured using animal products.

It is clear, that in this case, the claimant’s beliefs pervade and direct every part of his life.  His beliefs are not a mere choice of diet. In the circumstances – and bearing in mind the extent of the claimant’s beliefs – it is easy to see that the tribunal found that his ethical veganism fulfilled the test of what amounts to a belief. Indeed, they are beliefs that are genuinely held, sufficiently cogent, serious and worthy of respect in a democratic society.

What can an employer do to prevent discrimination?

This case has served as a timely reminder to be on top of possible discriminatory behaviour in the workplace. How can you identify warning signs and avoid potential issues? Here are some suggestions relevant at a general level, not just 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 are assured that they will be taken seriously;
  • Take action to deal promptly and appropriately with grievances from 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, such as asking and noting special dietary requirements for catered events – this has the joint benefit of being alerted to any food allergies as well as special diets, covering off an employer’s obligation as to health and safety as well as avoiding discrimination.

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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