Employers can ban headscarves from workplaces, European court rules

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At the time, the company had an unwritten rule prohibiting employees from wearing visible signs of their political, philosophical or religious beliefs.

On Tuesday, the European Court of Justice, the EU's top court, ruled that a Belgium firm was within its rights to dismiss an employee who began wearing an Islamic headscarf to work on the grounds that the head covering was against company rules on appearance in a public-facing role.

The decision came after a Belgian employee of security firm G4S complained to the European court because the company had told her she could not wear an Islamic headscarf to work.

"Where a ban on employees wearing religious or political symbols is founded on a general company rule of religious neutrality, and where that rule is applied equally to all, it can't realistically be argued that that this constitutes "less favourable treatment".

Advocates are enraged at a new European Union ruling that makes it legal for companies to ban their employees from wearing headscarves and other religious garb.

She claimed the decision was discriminatory.

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In the Belgian case, Samira Achbita was sacked as a receptionist by a security company after she insisted she should be allowed to work wearing an Islamic headscarf.

The ruling in the two cases comes as Europe has been shaken by the growth of conservatism and strong debate over Muslim immigration, leading to the rise of political candidates such as Geert Wilders in Netherlands or Marine le Pen in France with presidential elections nearing.

Some countries such as Austria are mulling a complete ban on the full-face veil in public, while in France previous year local authorities barred women wearing the burkini, the full-body swimsuit, fining those who did.

"There is a distinct lack of reported Court cases in New Zealand on the issue of religious clothing in the workplace, as most cases appear to be settled privately", says Andy Bell, of Wellington-based Bell & Co.

In the second case, design engineer Asma Bougnaoui was sacked from a consultancy firm, Micropole, following a complaint from a customer who claimed his staff had been "embarrassed" by her headscarf while she was on their premises giving advice.

The ECJ has ruled on a Belgian case about whether an employer can justify having a neutral dress policy and on a French preliminary question on a similar theme. In her case, the ECJ ruled that she had indeed been treated differently and so the client's demand that she not wear a hijab "cannot be considered a genuine and determining occupational requirement".

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