The latest EU ruling doesn’t mean that employers are free to ban headscarves in the workplace, says Julia Beasley, Head of Employment at Burroughs Day.
A Muslim worker in Belgium was dismissed for wearing a headscarf. She objected, and her case of religious discrimination made its way to the Court of Justice of the European Union.
The worker (Ms Achbita) was employed as a receptionist by G4S. At the time of Ms Achbita’s recruitment there was an unwritten rule within G4S that prohibited employees from wearing visible signs of their political, philosophical or religious beliefs in the workplace. Ms Achbita informed her employer that she intended to wear an Islamic headscarf during working hours. In response, the management of G4S informed her that the wearing of the headscarf would not be tolerated because the visible wearing of religious signs was contrary to the position of neutrality G4S adopted in its contacts with its customers. After a period of absence from work due to sickness, Ms Achbita notified her employer that she would be returning to work and that she would in future be wearing the Islamic headscarf. She was told she could not, and she was then dismissed.
The Court has now ruled that a ban on Muslim headwear didn’t amount to direct discrimination. This was because the employer banned the viable wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign in the workplace. It was treating all religions and beliefs in the same way. We assume that the ban also applied to crucifixes, which have been the subject of recent case law.
However, the Court said that the employer’s rule could amount to indirect discrimination. This is sensible. Clearly a ban on headscarves will apply disproportionately to Muslim women. But could such a rule be objectively justified? The answer: Not easily.
Justification would rely on a genuine occupational requirement not to wear a headscarf. The Court made it clear that an employer, who willingly takes account of his customers’ wishes not to be served by a worker in an Islamic headscarf, is not justified.
Brexit will not change this situation. The case of Achbita v G4S Secure Solutions was brought by a Belgian court to the Court of Justice of the European Union in order to clarify its interpretation of the EU equal treatment directive. In the UK we have the Equality Act 2010, which already protects workers against discrimination because of religion or belief.
For more information on workplace discrimination or any other employment law issues, contact the team on 0117 930 8408.