Achbita v G4S Secure Solutions: ECJ Rules that Banning Headscarves in the Workplace can be Legal

According to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), employers can ban the wearing of any “political, philosophical or religious sign” including headscarves, without it being direct discrimination.

The ECJ has highlighted that so long as the ban is based on internal company policies outlining that all employees must dress neutrally, it will be acceptable for employers to ask that staff refrain from wearing clothing of a religious nature.  

Such ban must not however, be based on “subjective considerations” alone, for example, the wishes of a customer or supplier.

The ruling comes following a claim made by Samira Achbita – a receptionist who was dismissed for wearing a headscarf to work in June 2006, following  3 years’ service with Belgium based security company G4S.

Ms Achbita claimed that she had been directly discriminated against on the grounds of her religion.

Following consideration by the domestic courts in Belgium, it was decided that the case should be referred to the ECJ.

During the course of proceedings, it became clear that at the time Ms Achbita was hired, there was an unwritten rule in place banning obvious religious symbols. This was eventually incorporated into company policy with company rules prohibiting “any manifestation of such beliefs without distinction”.

As a result, the ECJ held that the provisions were not directly discriminatory.

Practically speaking, this decision does not just impact on those wearing headscarves as part of the Islamic faith. In addition, the wearing of turbans, crucifixes, and skullcaps may be affected by this ruling.  

Whilst the decision has been met with disappointment by many Human Rights campaigners, who claim that such a stance will only encourages further racial divides in communities, many are relieved that the ECJ has highlighted the importance of balancing the rights of an employer and an employee in such a fair way.  

However, despite the outcome, the ECJ was clear that this ruling is not absolute, and the decision is not designed to negate the importance of an employer’s duty to show that they have not placed individuals of a particular religion or belief at a disadvantage as a consequence of their religion – unless there is an objective justification with a “legitimate aim” making such actions reasonable and necessary, based on the circumstances.

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    Jayme NicholsonPartner and Head of Employment

    Jayme is a Partner and Head of our Employment team

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