British Airways Accused of Victimising Whistleblower
A British Airways employee who successfully sued the company for religious discrimination five years ago is now bringing further legal action against the airline, alleging that she has been penalised by her employer for speaking out.
Nadia Eweida, a Coptic Christian, first sued British Airways in 2007, arguing that a new policy prohibiting staff from wearing any visible religious symbols at work constituted religious discrimination, after she was sent home from work for wearing a silver crucifix.
After the claim was initially rejected in the British courts, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) finally ruled in 2013 that BA’s policy violated Ms. Eweida’s human right to freedom of religious expression – as per Article 9 of the ECHR – in a landmark ruling for workplace discrimination.
In the time since this judgement however, Ms Eweida – who has worked as a check-in attendant at British Airways for 18 years – says she has been subjected to “victimisation over the years as a result of the cross case.”
It is claimed Ms Eweida was not granted a recovery break by her employer when she suffered eye strain following an operation, and was instead issued with a written warning for refusing to cover a flight gate due to her condition. The long-time BA employee also maintains that a new uniform policy issued in July 2017 which requires female staff to tuck their cravats into their blouses prevented her crucifix from being visible at work.
New government guidelines clarify law on workplace dress codes
In May, the government issued new guidelines for employers on avoiding discriminatory workplace dress code policies. The guidance states that employers should be “flexible and not set dress codes which prohibit religious symbols that do not interfere with an employee’s work.”
In addition, it recommends that companies consult with staff and trade unions on any proposed changes to the workplace dress code to avoid unnecessary conflict. Employers who enforce dress codes that are found to be discriminatory – on the basis of religion, gender or otherwise – may be ordered to pay compensation or fines by the courts.
Katie Harrison, director of faith research at research agency ComRes, says that the new guidelines are a “welcome” clarification of the law for employers. Harrison adds that it is now obvious that employers must give “a very clear reason” to show “how wearing a cross” or other religious symbol impedes an employee’s ability to carry out their duties in order to ban the adornment.
Government employment law adviser ACAS notes that work dress codes that amount to direct discrimination against employees are nearly always unlawful.
However, dress codes that amount to indirect discrimination, whereby a policy does not explicitly single out one group, but in practice does put one group at a disadvantage, may be justified if the measure in question can be proven to be a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim” – although in practice this can be hard to prove.
Airline “strongly denies” claims
Speaking about her new claim, Ms Eweida said that it is her “heartfelt wish that a positive outcome for this case will set a precedent ensuring the protection of others in the workplace.”
British Airways however says that it “strongly” denies “all of these claims.”
A spokesperson for the airline affirmed:
“We work hard to ensure that all …British Airways [staff] are treated fairly and consistently,” adding it “actively encourage[s] staff to report concerns that they have about safety or their wellbeing, so that these can be discussed with managers.”
Protections for whistleblowing employees are set to expand under a new EU directive, which will mandate free legal advice and temporary relief for workers who face discrimination due to their disclosures. Under current English law, whistleblowers are protected if they can prove that they made a disclosure, followed the correct disclosure procedure, and suffered a detriment as a result.
Disclosures must be made in the public interest for the employee to be protected, meaning that the employee must have reasonably believed that the company conduct they were exposing amounted to a criminal offence or breach of legal duty, a miscarriage of justice, a health and safety risk or a harm to the environment.
Employment law advice for whistleblowers
Whistleblowers at work will receive statutory protection from being victimised or dismissed provided that the information they disclose meets certain criteria. Whether an individual disclosure meets those criteria will always be a question of fact.
If you would like to discuss your employment situation, a potential claim for sex or gender discrimination at work, a potential claim for race discrimination at work, representation at an employment tribunal or would like a review of your employment contract then call us today in confidence on 03456 381381, or email your details to email@example.com.
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