Religious discrimination in the workplace

15 March 2017

The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has held that the banning of a headscarf at work does not constitute direct discrimination.

 

In February 2003, Samira Achbita, a Muslim, was employed as a receptionist by G4S, a private undertaking which provides, among other things, reception services for customers in both the public and private sectors. 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.

 

In April 2006, 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 political, philosophical or religious signs was contrary to the position of neutrality G4S adopted in its contacts with its customers. In May 2006, 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.

 

Later in May 2006, the G4S works council approved an amendment to the workplace regulations, which came into force in June 2006. These provided that ‘employees are prohibited, in the workplace, from wearing any visible signs of their political, philosophical or religious beliefs and/or from engaging in any observance of such beliefs’. Ms Achbita was dismissed because of her continuing insistence on wearing the Islamic headscarf at work. She challenged that dismissal in the Belgian courts.

 

The CJEU queried the interpretation of the EU directive on equal treatment in employment and occupation. In the judgment, it was noted first of all that, under the directive, the ‘principle of equal treatment’ means that there is to be no direct or indirect discrimination whatsoever on the grounds, among other things, of religion. Although the directive does not include a definition of ‘religion’, the EU legislature referred to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and to the constitutional traditions common to the Member States, which have been reaffirmed in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Therefore, the concept of religion must be interpreted as covering both the fact of having religious belief and the freedom of persons to manifest that belief in public.

 

The CJEU found that G4S’s internal rule refers to the wearing of visible signs of political, philosophical or religious beliefs and therefore covers any manifestation of such beliefs without distinction. The rule thus treats all employees of the undertaking in the same way, notably by requiring them, generally and without any differentiation, to dress neutrally. It is not evident from the material in the file available to the Court that that internal rule was applied differently to Ms Achbita as compared to other G4S employees. Accordingly, such an internal rule does not introduce a difference of treatment that is directly based on religion or belief, for the purposes of the directive.

 

Full details of the case Achbita v G4S Secure Solutions are not yet available; however the press release provided by the CJEU provides further information.