Veganism is more than just what people eat; it can encompass all aspects of an individual’s life, as can be seen in the definition of veganism on the vegan society website:
“Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”
As it currently stands, veganism does not enjoy protected characteristic status. However, in the recent case of Casamitjana v League Against Cruel Sports, the employment tribunal is being asked to consider whether veganism should be considered a “philosophical belief”. We do not have a judgment yet but if the tribunal finds that veganism is a philosophical belief then it will become another form of “religion or belief” and attain protected characteristic status, for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010.
To qualify as a philosophical belief, veganism must:
- Be genuinely held
- Be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour
- Attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance
- Be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others
- Be a belief, not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available.
In a recent survey that included 1,000 vegan employees and employers, the results showed that:
- 45% of vegans have, at one time or another; felt discriminated against by their employers
- 31% of vegans felt harassed or unfairly treated because of their veganism
- 48% of employers did nothing to accommodate their vegan employees
- 71% of employees would prefer that ‘non-meat eaters’ refrain from discussing their lifestyle choices
- 18% of employers offered vegan dishes
- 96% of vegans had to sit on leather furniture;
- 86% of vegans were only given soap to wash their hands with that had been tested on animals
- Of those employers who did accommodate for their vegan employees, one third said it was costly or difficult with 21% saying they feared making a mistake.
Nick Spencer of Think Tank Theos has warned of the dangers that if everyone’s belief becomes a protected characteristic then it will erode the sanctity of the protected characteristic status. Further, that it will become oppressive for everyone as different beliefs clash.
Protected characteristics are well known in employment law. The basic premise is that employers do not discriminate, or allow their workforce (for which you will likely be vicariously liable) to discriminate, against people because of their protected characteristic. This should be enshrined in your equality and diversity policies and engrained in your workforce through regular training.
In the event that veganism does become a protected characteristic, you will have to ensure that your policies, training and practices are updated to ensure that you do not fall foul of the Equality Act 2010. In addition, we think that there will likely be a surge of discrimination claims, in light of the statement by the Vegan Society that there are some 600,000 vegans in the UK alone.
Regardless of whether veganism does become a protected characteristic, it may be worth considering a few minor changes to ensure a more cohesive workforce and to keep people as happy as claims. Some changes could be quite simple, such as:
- Planting the seeds in your workforce’s mind that a slightly more inclusive approach should be taken, in light of the statistic regarding ‘non-meat eaters’ above
- Re-thinking the food options available in your work area and allowing people to pig out on the food they want to eat.
For more information, check out the BBC article: Sacked vegan claims discrimination in landmark case.