by Susanna Ritchie
Feb 18, 2020
Dismissals, HRM

Discrimination and ethical veganism – is it a thing?

A recent UK case has found that ethical veganism is a protected belief system akin to religion under UK anti-discrimination laws.

Accordingly, an employee who was dismissed after he raised concerns that his company’s pension funds were invested into firms involved in animal testing was able to bring a discrimination claim.

In Australia, it is unlawful to discriminate on the basis of religious or political ‘belief, opinion or activity’.

Could ethical veganism soon be a protected belief/practice in Australia?

IN THIS ARTICLE

  • Ethical veganism – what is it?
  • Ethical veganism at work – what does this mean for employers?
  • The take-out for Australian employers

ETHICAL VEGANISM – WHAT IS IT?

‘Ethical veganism’ is a philosophy that seeks to avoid consumption and use of animal-based products. Ethical vegans not only eat a plant-based diet (as vegans do) but also avoid indirect forms of animal exploitation such as using products tested on animals or made of leather or wool.

During a workday, a vegan employee can quite easily personally ensure to avoid eating animal products.  However, it would be much more difficult for an ethical vegan to avoid all forms of animal exploitation.

An ethical vegan may have the following concerns:

  • Are the office chairs leather?
  • Are my super/pension funds being invested in vegan friendly sources?
  • Are my company shares supporting animal exploitation?
  • Bathroom soap tested on animals?

If an ethical vegan seeks to strictly practice veganism – it could have an impact on others in the workplace or the business itself.

ETHICAL VEGANISM AT WORK – WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR EMPLOYERS?

UK Law – Ethical veganism protected under discrimination laws

A UK Case looked at this issue recently when an employee claimed his ‘ethical veganism’ was a protected characteristic under UK discrimination laws.[1]

Jordan Castamitjana, the head of policy and research at the League Against Cruel Sports (LAC), was dismissed after he raised a concern that the company’s pension funds were invested into firms involved in animal testing. Mr Castamitjana then claimed that LAC had discriminated against him based on his ‘ethical vegan’ beliefs.

In deciding this case, the UK Employment Tribunal established that ethical veganism could be considered a ‘philosophical belief’ as defined in UK anti-discrimination laws and thus a protected characteristic. This means in the UK it is unlawful to discriminate on the basis of a person’s ethical veganism.

Australian law – Not protected yet, but maybe! 

There is no established anti-discrimination precedent for ethical vegans in Australia.

Australian anti-discrimination legislation does not expressly protect ‘philosophical belief’ as the UK laws do.

However, in Australia, it is unlawful to discriminate on the basis of religious or political ‘belief, opinion or activity’. This includes holding or not holding a religious or political belief. This means ethical veganism could be protected in Australia if it is established it is a religious or political belief, opinion or activity. This would require establishing, amongst other things, that ethical veganism is more a ‘political’ standpoint rather than a ‘personal’ matter and/or that the protection of religious belief extends to philosophical belief as well.

The question was raised in the recent 2019 case of Vusal Asgarov v Living Edge (Aust) Pty Ltd[2] when an employee claimed the employer discriminated against him on the basis of his ethical veganism.

No precedent was set though as the Fair Work Commission rejected the request for an extension of time and the case did not proceed.

If ethical veganism could be considered a protected belief, then it could open up questions as to whether other strongly held and strictly practiced beliefs, opinions or activities are also protected. What about steadfast climate change activists refusing to be involved in fossil fuel production? Could they refuse to drive a car in the course of employment?

THE TAKE-OUTS FOR AUSTRALIAN EMPLOYERS

There is no set precedent for this in Australia – but if established could have an impact on Australian workplaces

Whether or not ethical vegan practices become legally protected under anti-discrimination laws, it is important that company policies and practices are inclusive for all in the workplace as far as practical. Employees are one of the most important assets your business has – they are crucial to whether your business thrives or fails – so it is important they feel engaged and are productive.

As proven by the recent report by the Diversity Council Australia,[3] inclusion of minorities (such as people with disabilities, people who are culturally diverse and people who identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander) improves feelings of inclusion for the whole of the workplace, not just the people from minority groups.

Inclusive practices change a workplace culture, and all of this has flow on benefits for profit and performance, innovation, staff recruitment and retention, and the management of legal risks. For example, if an employee is in a workplace that allows his or her colleague to work flexibly to pick up their kids – they are likely to remain in that workplace as they will see a concrete payoff to themselves by staying in a workplace that is fair and inclusive.[4] They are also more likely to feel engaged and be more productive.

Therefore, businesses who invest in (and implement!) strategies to improve the work environment for employees are better placed to enhance the productive output of their staff, and lower the risk of costly disputes associated with incidents of poor performance and behaviour.

Whilst implementing positive workplace culture strategies in your workplace is not an easy task, it is an investment which essentially pays for itself in the long run.

NEED SPECIALIST ADVICE

Workplace Wizards provides advice on workplace culture and how to comply with anti-discriminations laws in all Australian jurisdictions. We regularly conduct training for our clients on leadership, discrimination and Work Health Safety obligations. We also have a suite of policy and procedure templates and resource packs available for free download or purchase which can be tailored to your individual workplace needs. With this help, we can help you create the workplace environment within which your employees and business can thrive.

In addition to our advisory services, our advisors are legally qualified, and experienced in defending unfair dismissal, discrimination and WHS claims. In these matters, we always focus on obtaining outcomes for our clients that are commercial and manage all of the risks – including reputational ones. We have a track record of getting the result you need with as minimal fanfare as possible.

If you would like a confidential discussion about your workplace culture, policies and procedures, or need help defending a claim, please contact Susanna Ritchie on 0407 843 130 or susanna@workplacewizards.com.au.


[1] Casamitjana v The League Against Cruel Sports [2020] UKET 3331129/2018 (21 January 2020).

[2]Vusal Asgarov v Living Edge (Aust) Pty Ltd [2019] FWC 3868.

[3] Diversity Council Australia, Inclusive Index 2019-2020 at page 13 <https://www.dca.org.au/sites/default/files/inclusion-at-work-index/dca_inclusive_index_2019_synopsis_online_new_accessible.pdf>

[4] Diversity Council Australia, Business Case for Inclusion, <https://www.dca.org.au/topics/inclusion/business-case-inclusion#fn27> accessed 18 February 2020.

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Susanna Ritchie

Director

Susanna is a Director at Workplace Wizards. Susanna has over a decade of experience in providing advice, training and support to clients in both private and government practice as well as conducting litigation in courts and tribunals.

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