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Will vegans be protected under employment law?

Jordi Casamitjana is an ethical vegan and has been for 17 years. As a result, he avoids using animal products on the basis that their production causes animal suffering. He is also a zoologist, specialising in animal behaviour. Naturally, these beliefs and skills led to him taking a role with the League Against Cruel Sports, an animal welfare charity which campaigns against the use of animals in sports such as fox hunting and bullfighting.

During Mr Casamitjana’s time with the League Against Cruel Sports, he discovered that the organisation’s pension fund was investing in companies who have been known to engage in animal testing, such as pharmaceutical and tobacco companies. Mr Casamitjana fundamentally believed that, in doing so, they had contradicted the values and reasons for the organisation – to safeguard the interests of animals. He claimed that he raised this with the organisation and nothing changed, so he wrote to his colleagues to state what he had discovered. Mr Casamitjana was subsequently sacked.

The League Against Cruel Sports is defending this case and firmly states that the reason for Mr Casamitjana’s dismissal was one of the five potentially fair reasons for dismissal: conduct. Whilst they have not yet revealed their version of events, they have confirmed that Mr Casamitjana was dismissed for gross misconduct and for failing to follow express management decisions given to him. He was not dismissed because he raised concerns with the pension fund nor because he was a vegan. In fact, the CEO of the League Against Cruel Sports, Andy Knott, has specifically stated in an email to their members that they naturally have a large proportion of vegans and vegetarians working for them due to the very nature of the organisation.

Regardless of the decision made in the above case, it will provide a firm answer to the question of whether veganism is a philosophical belief. If it is, then ethical veganism will a protected characteristic which is protected by the Equality Act, and an ethical vegan will be capable of being discriminated against by law. When considering whether ethical veganism is a philosophical belief, the tribunal will consider the following:

  • Is the belief genuinely held?

  • Is it a belief, as opposed to an opinion or viewpoint?

  • Does the belief concern a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour?

  • Has the belief attained a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance?

  • Is the belief worthy of respect in a democratic society, not incompatible with human dignity or in conflict with the fundamental rights of others?

  • Does it have a similar status or cogency to a religious belief?

It is the view of Mr Casamitjana and his counsel that ethical veganism will pass these tests and qualify as a philosophical belief, and I agree that this is likely to be the case. If so, this matter will proceed to a full hearing to determine whether or not Mr Casamitjana was dismissed because of his belief. Regardless of the eventual outcome, this case could have huge implications for many businesses and the 600,000 or so vegans currently living and working in the UK.

We are still awaiting the outcome of this case, so stay tuned for an update after March when the Tribunal has made its decision. In the meantime, the case has thrown up a key question. Consider whether your company’s practices could be in conflict with some of your staff members’ beliefs. In the event that veganism is considered to be a philosophical belief, a requirement to wear leather shoes will be discriminatory against them.

Finally, as an addendum to the above, it should be noted that veganism as a whole is not being debated – only ethical veganism. If you are a vegan for dietary reasons, then you will not be protected under the Equality Act, regardless of the Tribunal’s findings.

 

These notes have been prepared for the purpose of an article only. They should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice.