Discrimination? Vegetarian employee whose food was tampered with brings claim against employer

Vegetarianism and veganism are now mainstream, with an estimated 3 million people in the UK now following a plant-based diet.

Restaurants and supermarkets are more accommodating than ever before, and saying no to meat has become a way of life for many people. Yet, despite how commonplace going meat-free has become, the topic of vegetarianism or veganism still arouses strong opinions, and those who adhere to this lifestyle are often very passionate about the cause.

With the UK vegan population predicted to sky-rocket by 327% come 2020, and clear ethnical motivations behind many people adopting these diets, the question arises: Does vegetarianism deserve the same protection are other more established religious or philosophical beliefs?

Well, in the realm of employment law, it seems we’re not quite there yet.

Conisbee v Crossley Farms Ltd

The claimant in this case, Mr Conisbee, was a vegetarian. He worked as a waiter at a hotel (owned by Crossley Farms Ltd) in Suffolk. During his employment, Mr Conisbee claimed that he had been tricked by colleagues into eating food that contained meat, including a croissant covered in duck fat and a pudding containing gelatin, an animal by-product. Five months into his employment, after being reprimanded for wearing a creased shirt, Mr Conisbee resigned.

As Mr Conisbee had less than two years’ service, he could not claim constructive unfair dismissal; however, he did bring a claim against the employer for direct discrimination on the ground of religion or belief contrary to the Equality Act 2010 (EqA 2010) – the belief here being vegetarianism.

Employers can be held vicariously liable for acts of harassment, victimisation or discrimination carried out by their employees in the course of their employment.

Religion and belief: The legal test

The EqA makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate against a person on the grounds of a protected characteristic. There are nine protected characteristics, including religion and belief.

While ‘religion’ is quite easy to identify, philosophical beliefs are harder to define. In order to qualify for legal protection, the belief in question must:

  • Be genuinely held and not a mere opinion or viewpoint of the present state of information available;
  • Be 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; and
  • Be compatible with human dignity, and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.
0 %
of vegans say they've experienced prejudice at work

The arguments

At a preliminary hearing, Mr Conisbee told an Employment Tribunal how he had been ridiculed for not eating meat. He maintained that vegetarianism satisfied the criteria outlined above and should therefore be afforded the same protection as other widely-accepted religious or philosophical beliefs. In particular, he argued that:

  • Vegetarians have a serious and genuine belief that rearing and killing animals for food is inhumane;
  • Vegetarianism is integral to his way of life; and
  • The fact that 20% of the world’s population is vegetarian demonstrates that it is a sufficiently compelling and widely-held belief.

The company did not dispute that Mr Conisbee’s belief in vegetarianism, and his view that it is beneficial for the environment, was genuinely held; however, it argued that it did not meet the other criteria. It also brought up the difficulties that employers would face if vegetarianism was to qualify for protection under the EqA 2010. After all, with it being quite common for people to dip in and out of vegetarianism at different points in their life, how would employers be able to accurately determine whether a person held a protected characteristic or not?

Verdict

Ultimately, the Tribunal rejected Mr Conisbee’s claim, finding that it did not clear all four hurdles necessary for protection. It held that:

  • Vegetarianism is not ‘a weighty and substantial’ aspect of human life and behaviour but a lifestyle choice based on the belief that killing animals for food is wrong. The fact that it is an important aspect of life for many was ‘not enough in itself’.

  • There is a great deal of variation in the reasons why people choose to be vegetarian, from strong ethical beliefs about the treatment of animals to diet concerns, and even just personal taste. Here, it drew comparisons with veganism, which appears to have more unified motivations.

  • To qualify for protection, a belief must have ‘a similar status or cogency to religious beliefs’, which vegetarianism does not.

James Tamm

Director of Legal Services

Expert Comment

Whilst the reasoning of the Tribunal can be followed, this is a surprising decision – especially when you consider that, in other cases, views against fox hunting and that mediums can communicate with the dead have been held as philosophical beliefs.

This was a first-instance decision, therefore not binding on other Tribunals, and I would not be surprised to see this being appealed. In any event – and what is sometimes lost in a case like this – if the employer can evidence that the reason they dismissed the claimant had nothing to do with his philosophical beliefs, then a claim for discrimination would fail without getting into technical arguments about what does or does not constitute a belief.