What protections are afforded to vegans in the workplace?

Veganuary is an annual challenge which aims to promote and educate about veganism worldwide by encouraging people to follow a vegan lifestyle for the month of January. The challenge is well known and many employees are likely to be taking part across the UK or at least discussing the topic in the staff room. It is, therefore, a useful time for employers to be reminded of what protections (if any) are afforded to vegans in the workplace.   

What is veganism?

Firstly, a reminder that veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose. In dietary terms it involves dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals and, by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment.

Philosophical beliefs

The Equality Act 2010 protects workers from unlawful discrimination related to a philosophical belief. For a philosophical belief to gain protection it must:

  1. Be genuinely held;
  2. Be a belief and not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available;
  3. Be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
  4. Attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance; and
  5. Be worth of respect in a democratic society and not incompatible with human dignity and or conflict with the fundamental rights of others

Is veganism protected?

There have been a number of reported employment tribunal cases on whether veganism is capable of amounting to a protected philosophical belief.

In Casamitjana Costa v The League Against Cruel Sports, in a 2020 decision, an employment tribunal held that ethical veganism could amount to a protected philosophical belief. In that case, the claimant, Mr Casamitjana, was a zoologist and ethical vegan living in London. After starting employment with the respondent in 2016, it became known to him that the organisation was investing pension funds into companies known to conduct testing on nonhuman animals. He raised his concerns about this with his employer and subsequently made the information known to his colleagues.

Mr Casamitjana was dismissed without a right of appeal. He viewed his dismissal as discrimination on the grounds of his philosophical belief in ethical veganism. At a preliminary hearing, the employment tribunal decided that “ethical veganism” had obtained a high level of cogency, cohesion and importance, there was no conflict between veganism and human dignity, and ethical veganism did not in any way offend society or conflict with the fundamental rights of others. Accordingly, Mr Casamitjana was entitled to continue his claim.

However, in the more recent case of Free Miles v The Royal Veterinary College, in a 2022 decision, an employment tribunal took a different view. In that case, the tribunal held that ethical veganism was not a protected belief. The case related to a veterinary nurse employed by the respondent. She was summarily dismissed by the respondent after being arrested by police in connection with alleged burglaries by the Animal Liberation Front. In this case, the employment tribunal had to consider whether the claimant’s belief in ethical veganism entitled her to break the law. In essence, it had to consider whether her belief encompassed an “obligation” to trespass on private property and remove animals from the property in order to expose and relieve animal suffering.

The tribunal concluded that a “belief”  that included these criminal acts could not meet the fifth element of the test for what constitutes a protected “philosophical belief”, namely that it must be “worthy of respect in a democratic society”.  In the tribunal’s view, the laws of our country are made by the legislature for everyone to observe and it was not open to individuals to decide which laws were worthy of respect and which were unjust and could be disobeyed.

What should employers do?

Whilst both Casamitjana Costa and Free Miles are both “first instance” decisions, meaning that they are not binding on other employment tribunals, they provide us with an insight into how an employment tribunal may approach “religious and philosophical belief” claims based on ethical veganism, and the different elements of any such belief. Unless and until we are provided with a finite list of what religions and philosophies constitute a belief under the 2010 Act, each case will continue to turn on its own facts and, in particular, the manner in which the particular claimant exercises (or manifests) their belief.

Employers should nevertheless be mindful that veganism is at least capable of being a protected philosophical belief and they should avoid treating an employee less favourably because of any such belief. 

Whether an employee who has only practiced veganism for the month of January can be said to hold a protected philosophical belief is obviously another matter. Watch this space… 

Contact the BTO employment team if you would like to discuss any aspect of this blog.

This update contains general information only and does not constitute legal or other professional advice. 

Katie Hendry, Solicitor: khe@bto.co.uk / 0141 221 8012 / Connect with Katie

Dawn Robertson, Partner & Accredited Specialist in Employment Law: dro@bto.co.uk / 0131 222 3242 / Connect with Dawn