16 March 2017

If an employer has a rule which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign, that does not constitute direct discrimination, the EU's Court of Justice (CJEU) has ruled.

Case C-157/15 was referred by a Belgium court which asked for an interpretation of the EU's Equal Treatment Directive (2000/78/EC) with regard to a complaint of unfair dismissal brought by a receptionist working for G4S.

At the time of Samira Achbita's recruitment there was an (unwritten) rule within the firm that prohibited employees from wearing visible signs of their political, philosophical or religious beliefs in the workplace.

When, some years later, she informed her employer that she intended to wear an Islamic headscarf during working hours, and insisted on doing so even though the company works council had by then accepted the ban into the firm's workplace regulations, Ms Achbita was dismissed.

As the rule thus treats all employees of G4S in the same way, the CJEU decided that it did not involve direct discrimination in this case. Nor would it amount to indirect discrimination if it was justified by a legitimate aim and if the means of achieving that aim were appropriate and necessary, but that was for the national court to decide.

The EU Court accepted that an employer’s desire to project an image of neutrality towards both its public and private sector customers would be legitimate, notably where the only workers involved are those who come into contact with customers.

However, it asked the national court to consider whether it would have been possible for G4S to offer Ms Achbita a post not involving any visual contact with customers, instead of dismissing her.

The CJEU decision extended to a second case raising similar issues, with details of both available at http://bit.ly/2mmALaq.