Employers need to work much harder to consider the needs of vegan employees and treat them with respect, or risk running into legal difficulties, an employment law firm has warned.
Citing its research that found about half (48%) of employers do nothing to accommodate vegan requirements at work, Crossland Employment Solicitors’ study found that three-quarters of organisations (74%) did not realise that under the Equality Act 2010 “philosophical beliefs” – likely to include veganism – were a protected characteristic in employment law.
Discrimination and veganism
Significantly, a quarter (24%) of employers showed a lack of understanding of veganism, believing that it had been chosen by their colleagues as a lifestyle choice rather than because of genuine animal welfare or environmental concerns.
Crossland Employment Solicitors managing director Beverley Sunderland said she was “surprised by the number of employers who did not understand that veganism could be a philosophical belief and therefore covered by discrimination legislation and also the high level of employees (45%) who believed they have been discriminated against because they are vegans”.
Test cases will clarify veganism’s status over the coming months.
Only 18% of vegan employees told researchers that their staff cafe offered vegan options with some claiming to also “feel pressured to fit in with limited menu choices at work functions”. Almost all (96%) reported having to sit on leather furniture at work, and the vast majority (86%) have to use soap in the office toilets that has been tested on animals.
There is a lack of understanding as to the potential impact of the Equality Act 2010. Veganism is likely to be covered if a vegan has a genuinely held belief and not just an opinion or viewpoint” – Beverley Sunderland
The study collected comments from vegan staff that indicated a degree of discrimination from managers and colleagues: “My boss refers to vegans as tree-huggers;” “Management don’t understand vegans and make ignorant comments;” “Some of my colleagues make disparaging comments about fads;” and “Vegans are as weird as new age travellers” were among them.
Of those employers who do accommodate vegans, nearly a third (32%) said it was costly or could be difficult to cater for vegans while 21% said it was risky in case they got it wrong.
Sunderland said the research showed that prejudiced attitudes towards vegan workers were “endemic” among British employers.
She added that companies needed to understand they could soon be legally exposed over the issue: “There is a lack of understanding as to the potential impact of the Equality Act 2010. Veganism is likely to be covered if a vegan has a genuinely held belief and not just an opinion or viewpoint. That belief must be ‘cogent, serious and applies to an important aspect of human life or behaviour and be worthy of respect in a democratic society and not affect other people’s fundamental rights.
“For example, case law has already decided that belief in man-made climate change is a philosophical belief and there is little doubt that veganism will be considered also when it comes before the tribunal later this year in the case Casamitjana v League Against Cruel Sports. We’d advise that employers need to be taking such beliefs seriously and acting against those who are derogatory about vegans. After all, if an employee was mocking someone’s religion, their sex or their race, an employer would not hesitate to take serious action.”
Sunderland also said that many employers were not clear about what the differences were between vegans and vegetarians. “Many people think vegans are vegetarians who don’t drink milk or eat eggs but it is much more than that.”
The definition of vegans on the Vegan Society website is “a way of living which seeks to exclude as far as possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose”.
Sunderland added that many people said they followed a vegan diet, “but that is quite different to saying that they are an ethical vegan. The first category would not be covered by the Equality Act but an ethical vegan will be.”
Employers that are examples of good practice when it comes to vegan employees include the Royal Mail Group, which offers 100% natural fibre uniforms and alternatives to leather shoes. There’s also football league club Forest Green Rovers where staff and employers all follow a vegan diet and employees serve vegan food on match days. In 2017 the Division Two club was awarded the Vegan Trademark by the Vegan Society.