A step towards equality: employees will be able to wear the veil at work

Wearing religious symbols and signs at work has always been a big issue, and it will probably keep on generating debates, as the laws are not that clear or uniform across the European Union. Islam’s symbols have unfortunately been a controversial issue over the last couple of years, and politics have called for different actions and orientations with regards to wearing the veil at work. However, since Friday both employers and employees should know that a person cannot be fired if (s)he wears the veil at work in the EU.

Mrs Achbita is Muslim and used to work for a security company in 2006 as a receptionist. She decided to wear the veil at work, which was contrary to the internal policy, and that’s why her employer fired her after negotiations failed.

Both the lower Court and the Antwerp Labour Court approved that decision as they found neutrality for customers was a “legitimate objective”. Mrs Achbita disagreed with that stance and brought a last action before the Court of Cassation of Belgium, which asked the Court of justice of the European Union to make that point clear. The EU judges found that there was no concrete reason to fire Mrs Achbita, as a company can ban the veil only if the employee has a visual contact with the customers. And if the employee does not want to take it off, the employer should find an alternative position without visual contact with customers. Thanks to this judgement, the Court of Cassation found Mrs Achbita has been victim of discrimination and made her former employer’s decision illegal.

As mentioned before, as the debate on that point has been very sensitive for years, this judgement might induce several reactions. Twitter has however not been invaded by populist and xenophobic trolls yet, as it is used to happen in similar cases. Only a couple of twits have raised the issue and have publicly expressed their opposition to that decision. The Interfederal Centre for Equal Opportunities (Unia), which led the judicial action on behalf of Mrs Achbita, was very happy about the judgment and called for a “clear jurisprudence to know in which cases the commercial companies can ban the veil” with regard to neutrality, as Unia director Patrick Charlier said. It indeed might be good to exactly know what an employee can or cannot do in the future, in order to make the debates quieter and smarter.