Campaigners warn workplace headscarf ruling panders to the right
BOSSES are free to ban the wearing of headscarves at work and sack the women who do, the European Union’s top court ruled yesterday.
Company policies prohibiting the wearing of visible political, philosophical or religious signs do not constitute direct discrimination, according to judges at the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice (ECJ).
The judgement was made against Samira Achbita, a Muslim woman who was fired from her receptionist job at private security firm G4S in Belgium.
She was dismissed in June 2006 after notifying her employer in advance that she would be wearing the headscarf, also known as the hijab, at work.
The company policy over the wearing of religious symbols was “unwritten” at the time she was hired in 2003 but G4S had subsequently made it explicit in its workplace regulations, according to the ECJ.
Ms Achbita challenged her dismissal in the Belgian courts, which referred the case to Europe’s top court.
The ECJ found that the G4S rule “treats all employees of the undertaking in the same way, notably by requiring them, generally and without any differentiation, to dress neutrally.”
An ECJ statement reads: “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.”
However the court was not absolute in its ruling, adding that such a ban may constitute “indirect discrimination” if it disadvantages followers of a particular religion or belief.
A Muslim Council of Britain spokeswoman said that the decision could let employers that discriminate against workers off the hook.
“It is a sad day for justice and equality,” she said. “At a time when populism and bigotry are at an all-time high, we fear that this ruling will serve as a green light to those wishing to normalise discrimination against faith communities.
“Many will be worried that this action will prevent Muslim women who choose to wear the scarf from securing jobs. And it sends a message that we cannot accept a plural society that recognises and celebrates religious differences.
“This is a backward step which people of all faiths and none should speak out against.”
Stand Up to Racism co-convenor Weyman Bennett said the ban “accepts the language of racism” and that it follows similar calls by far-right politicians in Europe such as Geert Wilders of the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen of France.
Mr Bennett added: “This is a draconian law that is discriminatory to the Muslim community. Europe has a terrible track record because of colonialism and how it treats people it describes as ‘the other.’
“In 1930s Vienna, outwardly Jewish symbols were banned before Hitler. This atmosphere contributed to one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century — the Holocaust.
“We should be mindful that we don’t repeat the same mistakes. We should march, demonstrate and defend democratic rights for women to wear what they want, when they want.”
There are marches against racism across Britain this weekend, starting from the BBC HQ in Portland Place, London, at noon, Glasgow’s Holland Street at 11am and Grange Gardens, Cardiff, at 11am.