Veganuary blues? Is veganism a protected “philosophical belief”?

An employment tribunal is set to determine whether veganism is a “philosophical belief” that can be legally protected, in a landmark legal action.

Executive summary

An employment tribunal is set to determine whether veganism is a “philosophical belief” that can be legally protected, in a landmark legal action. The decision is one that could have a profound impact on those of you with employees with strongly held vegan views.

The facts

Jordi Casamitjana claims he was discriminated against on the grounds of his “ethical vegan” beliefs, after revealing that his ex-employer, the League Against Cruel Sports, invested pension funds in firms involved in animal testing. However, Casamitjana’s ex-employer has rejected his claims, stating that he was dismissed on the grounds of gross misconduct and that it is factually wrong to link this with issues pertaining to veganism.

For the first time, in a hearing set for March 2019, the employment tribunal will decide if veganism is a “philosophical belief”.

Is veganism a belief?

The Vegan Society defines veganism as “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose”. Put another way, veganism involves the belief or conviction that it is fundamentally wrong to exploit and kill animals without cause.

This definition describes “ethical” veganism; a consuming belief which touches not just food but every area of life. This arguably differs from a narrower form of veganism which simply involves following a plant-based diet. It will be interesting to see whether the employment tribunal will make a distinction along these lines.

Veganism and human rights

One of the core principles of human rights law is the right to live according to freedom of conscience and to manifest ethical convictions subject only to restrictions prescribed by law and necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. This is encompassed in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights. The Human Rights Act 1998 entrenches the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion into UK law.

A ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in the early 1990s, H v UK, established that veganism does fall within the scope of Article 9. In that case, a prisoner working in the prison print unit had objected to working with non-vegan ink which had been tested on animals. However, despite the fact that Article 9 was engaged, the prisoner lost his case on the basis that prison rules were required in a democracy and any interference with his rights was justified. Since then, Article 9 has also been found to have been violated in other European cases where prisoners have not been provided with vegan meals.

Equality concerns

Under the Equality Act 2010, religion or belief is one of the nine protected characteristics.

In order to be protected, a “belief” must:

  • be genuinely held;
  • be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available;
  • 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; and
  • be worthy of respect in a democratic society, compatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

It is difficult to conceive a situation where the way of life adopted by an ethical vegan is not worthy of respect in a democratic society. Indeed, in many countries, the law already explicitly protects vegans on the basis that veganism is an ethical or philosophical belief.

Why is this important?

There is a growing trend towards a vegan lifestyle and beliefs. The Vegan Society say there are 600,000 vegans in the UK, increased from 150,000 in 2014. Clear protection from discrimination would be a momentous development for the vegan movement in the UK.

Earlier this year an advert was placed by a London NHS Trust seeking an Occupational Therapist (OT) in eating disorders, with a restriction that “OTs with vegan diets cannot be considered”. When challenged, the Trust apologised and amended the ad to remove the caveat. This is just one example of discrimination towards vegans, in all likelihood caused by a misunderstanding of veganism. The Trust had a pre-conceived idea that someone following a vegan lifestyle would be unable to fulfil the advertised role. According to the International Vegan Rights Alliance (IVRA), there are many cases involving the unfair treatment of vegans, but few reach court due to stress, time and cost restrictions.

What does this mean for me?

Clearly, the upcoming employment tribunal case will have wide implications, not just for Mr Casamitjana. Although any decision made will not be binding on other tribunals, it is likely to be taken into account if similar issues are considered in the future. If he succeeds in establishing veganism as a “philosophical belief” we may see an increase in claims from vegans alleging discrimination.

Regardless of the outcome of this case, it is important to make reasonable efforts to accommodate the ethical beliefs of your employees, including vegans. Obviously, this means not permitting victimisation, harassment or unfair treatment of any staff who are vegan. However, vegan employees may argue that an employer’s responsibilities should stretch further, to ensuring that those who are vegan are offered alternatives to animal-based products such as vegan alternatives where food is provided; alternative vegan safety wear, where required; and allowing vegan employees to opt-out of non-vegan practices, such as purchasing office milk or working with animal-derived materials.

We will look forward with interest to the outcome of this hearing and keep you updated.

Carolyn Bowie, carolyn.bowie@weightmans.com, is a member of the Employment, Pensions and Immigration team at Weightmans LLP and is based in Glasgow. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact Carolyn or speak to your usual Weightmans advisor.

Share on Twitter