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Employment law in the news: January 2020

A round-up of some of employment law cases that have been covered in the news recently

Ethical veganism protected by discrimination laws

An Employment Tribunal in Norwich has held for the first time that ethical veganism is a philosophical belief and therefore is protected under discrimination legislation.

Regular readers of our fortnightly newsletters will know that this development in employment law has been on the cards for a while and it was only a matter of time before a case came before a Tribunal to decide whether ethical veganism should be given the same protection as other more recognisable forms of philosophical belief.

To be distinguished from someone who chooses not to eat meat or animal produce as a life-style choice or health reasons, an ethical vegan is someone who opposes the use of animals by humans for any purpose.

The case in question was brought by Jordi Casamitjana, an ethical vegan who claimed he was dismissed by his employer, the League against Cruel Sports, because he was an ethical vegan.  Mr Casamitjana argued that he was dismissed by the charity after he disclosed that it invested in companies that were involved in animal testing.   He said that his dismissal was discriminatory because his decision to disclose this information about his employer was motivated by his ethical veganism.

In a preliminary hearing to decide the issue, the Employment Tribunal Judge ruled that ethical veganism was as a philosophical belief, concluding that it met the conditions necessary for a belief to be protected in law – namely that:

  • The belief must be genuinely held;
  • It must be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present stage of information available;
  • It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
  • It must maintain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance;
  • It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society and not incompatible with human dignity or conflict with the human rights of others.

The Employment Tribunal will decide at a later point as to whether Mr Casamitjana was dismissed because of his philosophical belief (and therefore whether his dismissal amounted to unlawful discrimination) but the ruling that his ethical veganism is a protected belief means that Mr Casamitjana can continue to pursue a discrimination claim against the charity.

Decisions made by employment tribunals are not binding so it is possible that similar cases could be decided differently – but it seems unlikely.   The League against Cruel Sports did not contest whether ethical veganism was protected in law as a philosophical belief so there will be no appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal on the issue.

What does the decision mean for employers? 

Most employers will already have an equal opportunities policy which sets out its commitment to providing equality of opportunity for all in its employment practices (and if an employer does not have one, it should put one in place – and we can help with this).

Also, all staff should be aware of the policy and what behaviour is expected from them in the workplace.   However, in light of this ruling, employers should remind staff of the importance of treating everyone with dignity and respect at work whatever their race, sex, disability, religion and age but also in relation to wider philosophical beliefs such as veganism.

BBC loses equal pay case

An Employment Tribunal recently ruled in favour of Newswatch presenter, Samira Ahmed, in a claim she brought against the BBC for equal pay.

Presenter Samira Ahmed claimed that she was entitled to be paid the same as Points of View presenter, Jeremy Vine, for carrying out similar work to him.  Ms Ahmed argued that she and Jeremy Vine presented similar programmes but whereas Jeremy Vine was (until 2018) paid £3000 per episode of Points of View, she was only paid £440 per Newswatch episode.

The BBC sought to defend Ms Ahmed’s claim by arguing that the difference in pay was due to the differences between the roles and the programmes that were presented and not, as Ms Ahmed argued, due to a difference in sex.  The BBC argued that the Points of View programme was in a different genre to Newswatch.  Points of View, the BBC argued, was an entertainment programme, whereas Newswatch was a news programme.  Also, Points of View was shown on the TV at a different time of day to Newswatch – which was on in the mornings – and had a different audience and bigger viewing figures.   The BBC also claimed that because Points of View was an entertainment programme, the profile of the presenter was more important than it was for Newswatch.  Newswatch, the BBC said, required a skilled journalist but did not require someone well known with a public profile.   The BBC also argued that Ms Ahmed’s predecessor, a male, had been paid the same for doing the same role.

The Employment Tribunal found in Ms Ahmed’s favour.  In a unanimous verdict, the Judges held that the work that Ms Ahmed did was similar to Mr Vine and that the difference in pay was due to sex.   The Tribunal concluded that the differences that the BBC claimed existed between the roles were minor and had no impact on the work the two presenters actually did or the skills and experience required to present the programmes.  The BBC’s claim that the presenter of Points of View needed to be “cheeky” and light-hearted did not sway the Tribunal who said that the attempts at humour came from the script from the autocue that Mr Vine read.  The BBC’s other arguments about market pressures, the profile of the two programmes and audience recognition of the two presenters were also not considered to justify the difference in pay.

The National Union of Journalists, who supported Ms Ahmed’s claim, said at the conclusion of the hearing that they will seek to obtain full back pay for Ms Ahmed – a figure which is estimated to be around £700,000.   In response to the judgment, the BBC reiterated that the pay for Ms Ahmed was not because of her gender.

The case is a reminder to employers of the importance and benefits of having transparent processes for determining pay.   For the BBC, the judgment could have potentially damaging and far reaching consequences, not least because of the likelihood that Ms Ahmed’s settlement is likely to be substantial (although it is not known if the BBC will appeal the decision yet).  The BBC has for many years justified the pay of well-known presenters on the basis of their public profile or celebrity (you may remember in 2017 that figures were published showing that Gary Lineker was paid between £1.75 and £1.79 million for presenting Match of the Day whereas Clare Balding was paid between £150k and £199k for covering major sporting events for the BBC).  The decision in Ms Ahmed’s case has sent a clear message that where presenters are doing similar work, a difference in profile is not enough to justify pay disparity.

Since Ms Ahmed won her case, it appears many more women are going to be pursuing equal pay claims against the BBC, so it’s unlikely that this is the last we will hear of pay disputes in the BBC.

Debenhams reaches settlement with transgender job applicant

In the news last week, it was reported that a settlement had been reached between Debenhams and a transgender woman, Ava Moore.  Ms Moore brought a sex discrimination claim against Debenhams claiming that she had been turned down a job at the retailer because she was transgender.

Ms Moore had applied for a Christmas job in 2018 but despite performing well in the interview was told she was unsuccessful.  Ms Moore claimed that the atmosphere in the interview changed when they found out she was transgender and that, after she was told she did not get the job, she received an anonymous email saying that the reason she did not get it was because she was a transgender woman.

The case was settled by Debenhams before it went to Tribunal, without admission of liability, for a reputed £9,000.  The retailer issued a statement saying it was an equal opportunities employer and that decisions on recruitment were based solely on personal competence and performance.

Ms Moore’s case highlights the need for employers to have clear and transparent recruitment procedures and to give training to those responsible for hiring in equal opportunities, diversity and interview skills.

This article was written and researched by Miranda Amos, Solicitor at our Salisbury Office.  Miranda advises clients across Hampshire, Wiltshire and Nationwide.

 Miranda is the firms expert on maternity, pregnancy and parental rights. If you have any questions or concerns about the proposed changes or any issues in your business please do get in touch with Miranda directly!

Don’t forget getting advice from a Solicitor does not have to be complicated or costly!

Photo by Elliott Stallion on Unsplash

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The information contained in this blog post is provided for guidance and is a snapshot of the law at the time it is written. It is provided for your information only and should not be used as a substitute for obtaining legal advice that it specific to your particular circumstances.

The guidance should not be relied upon in any decision making process. It is strongly recommended that you seek advice before taking action.

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