Last week’s employment tribunal ruling that Jordi Casamitjana’s belief in ethical veganism was protected under the Equality Act was not surprising to legal experts – so why was it so widely reported as a “landmark” case?
The answer may lie in the broader context. On the same day that the decision was announced, unprecedented bush fires were raging in Australia, and the BBC reported that Amazon had “threatened to fire” some employees for speaking up about climate change issues.
Mr Casamitjana’s case against the League of Cruel Sports is not, at least directly, about climate change. He alleges that he was dismissed because he had raised legitimate concerns about funds in which his pension contributions were being invested, which included companies which “hurt animals”. But there is no doubt in the public’s mind that ethical veganism and taking action on climate change are closely connected.
This case still has a long way to go. So far we have only had a preliminary ruling that Mr Casamitjana’s particular brand of ethical veganism is a protected belief, which, as an employment tribunal decision, does not create a binding precedent. Mr Casamitjana will now need to show that he was dismissed because of his beliefs, something that his employers deny. Given that actual prejudice against vegans (or people holding many other philosophical beliefs) is fairly rare, this is often the most difficult hurdle for claimants to jump in cases like this.
There is also a broader question which does not appear to be addressed in this case: to what extent are employers entitled to restrict staff from talking critically about the organisation that employs them, even where this is linked to a protected philosophical belief? This involves not only discrimination law, but also connected issues about employees’ rights to freedom of expression under article 10 of the European Human Rights Convention.
A similar issue has recently been considered by the European Court of Human Rights in a ruling involving Hungary. It had to decide whether Hungarian law contained adequate safeguards to protect a bank employee who had drawn on his professional experience to write an article in his personal capacity on a blog aimed at HR professionals. It found that the Hungarian courts had been too ready to conclude that the claimant’s human rights had been trumped by a contractual obligation “not to publish formally or informally any information relating to the functioning and activities” of his employer.
To return to the question posed at the outset, Mr Casamitjana’s case flags a point that will be on the minds of many employers as the news agenda focuses with increasing intensity on what many regard as a climate change emergency: to what extent should they attempt to restrict what employees do to campaign for changes in their own employer’s response to climate change? In the UK we are yet to see a case on this point, though we do have a decision that belief in climate change (and the need to do something about it) is capable of being a philosophical belief. Even though this litigation is currently only at employment tribunal level, it would have been handy if Mr Casamitjana’s case had tackled this issue. It hasn’t come anywhere near that, at least not yet.