Home > Workplace > Belgium > 2010-04-27 - Antwerp Labour Court, n. AR/06/397639/A

2010-04-27 - Antwerp Labour Court, n. AR/06/397639/A

Workplace · Belgium · Dismissal · Dress code

Dismissal based on wearing religious headscarf in the workplace

Key facts of the case - Female Muslim employee was employed as a receptionist for three years by G4S, a multinational offering security and reception services. She initially took her headscarf off when starting her shifts working at various client sites in Antwerp. In 2006, she told her bosses that from then on she wanted to wear a headscarf during work hours. She was informed that a headscarf on the job would not be tolerated as it conflicted with the aspired-for neutrality, both within the company and towards clients.
During a period of sick-leave, she was told that upon her return she would also have to wear a uniform. She was not allowed to return to work until she would follow the dress code strictly.
Meanwhile, the company board adjusted internal regulations and added a new clause on uniform dress code, banning any visible political, ideological or religious symbols at work. Despite negotiation attempts by the Belgian Centre for Equal Opportunities and the Fight Against Racism and the liberal union, the woman was fired with three months’ severance pay. The following day the new company regulation entered into effect.

Main reasoning of the court - In a 32-page judgment, the tribunal addresses the claims of direct and indirect discrimination, in the end judging that the woman’s dismissal under the given circumstances was not discriminatory or abusive. It holds that there is no direct discrimination under the Belgian anti-discrimination law for wearing of religious clothing or symbols at work since this is not included under the protected ‘religion or belief’ criterion. According to the tribunal, it would only be direct discrimination on basis of religion if she was fired for being a follower of Islam, which was not the case as the company knew and had no problem with her being a Muslim before she insisted on wearing a headscarf on the job. The tribunal also rules that the employee has failed to show she was treated differently than ‘comparable employees’ (these have to be employees who also wanted to wear religious symbols, not secular employees, some of which were caught without uniform on the job after the rule went into effect.) The tribunal finds that the company did not adopt the new regulations merely in response to the conflict, but that ‘unwritten company neutrality rules’ were in place, confirmed by employee’s year-long actions. The claim of indirect discrimination fails as well. In any case, the tribunal considers the measure as justified by the goal of the company to sustain its neutrality and guarantee tolerance for all convictions in the workplace.

Comment - The Court Limits the notion ‘religion or belief’ under the Belgian anti-discrimination law to only forum internum part of religious freedom. Headscarf conflicts thus can only to be regarded under indirect discrimination with possibility of justification (legitimate aim and proportional restriction of freedom of religion).