Support for employees - Know your religious rights

Aoife O'Riordain looks at how to ensure that your entitlements are upheld at work
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Everyone is entitled to equal rights when it comes to their religious beliefs in the workplace, but all too often these are compromised within an office environment. It's an issue that affects every echelon of the working world, regardless of an employee's standing, from the lowest to the highest paid.

Fortunately, there is a legal framework in place to assist, but it's important to know your rights.

The Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) and Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 made it unlawful for employers to discriminate against their employees on grounds of sexual orientation or religious belief. In the case of the latter, this means employees may not be subjected to direct or indirect discrimination, victimisation or harassment on the grounds of their religion, religious belief or similar philosophical belief.

Unfair types of treatment can take several forms, and include the likes of religious-based name calling or abuse, dismissing job applications because of the candidate's religion, refusing to allow observance of religious practices, unfair dismissal, failing to allow someone to progress due to the beliefs that they hold, or not allowing people to wear a sacred item. Another example could be a person of a different religion not being considered for employment at a one-faith school, regardless of their qualifications.

This October, one of the biggest reviews of these laws will come into effect in the form of the new Equality Act 2010. As well as introducing some new legislation and clarifying some existing laws, the Act will consolidate many of the laws that have been introduced over the past four decades.

While most people would like to believe we should all be able to pursue our working lives unhindered by discrimination, the fact remains it is all too prevalent in modern workplaces.

So how can employees ensure their rights are being upheld when it comes to their religious beliefs, and how can they ensure they are getting a fair deal on a fair and equal basis?

Knowledge is, of course, power and fortunately there are numerous organisations and sources of information to help people better acquaint themselves with their rights. Directgov, the public services information website, is a good place to start, as is any local Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) or the advice on its website.

As well as giving a comprehensive overview of employees' rights within the realms of work and religious discrimination, the CAB website offers practical help about how to start addressing the issue should you feel you are a victim of discrimination.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is another informative port of call for those wanting to explore their options and arm themselves with the facts. It offers a helpline for anyone seeking guidance on the standard employment practices and explains the law to them. It can also tell people where to go to get more specialist or appropriate help or advice if needed. In the first four months of 2010, its helpline received more than 200 calls about alleged religious discrimination in the workplace. These included calls from people who felt they had been discriminated against due to their religious beliefs, from individuals who had asked for specific time off for prayer and had been refused, and others who had worn religious symbols or dress, which their employer had deemed inappropriate.

The commission's online guide also gives comprehensive facts and advice about how religious discrimination may arise in the workplace and how to proceed. It explains the methods people may use before resorting to legal action or an employment tribunal, if they feel they are the victims of prejudice. These avenues can include processes such as formal and informal grievance procedures, religion and belief questionnaires or mediation.

To date, the EHRC has undertaken formal or informal enforcement action in 29 cases involving religious discrimination. However, the commission only takes on a small proportion of the cases that come to its attention, only pursuing cases which clarify the law, or involve important matters of public policy.

Another invaluable source of information is Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service). This was founded in 1975, and, although mainly funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills it is a non-departmental body governed by an independent council. It offers a range of services to individuals and groups of employees to help avoid or resolve problems in the workplace. Its free helpline offers confidential and impartial guidance on employment rights and workplace issues such as discrimination based on an individual's religious beliefs.

In a 2007 survey, the Department of Trade and Industry commissioned Acas to examine the impact of the 2003 Employment Equality Regulations. It found that employment and tribunal claims involving religion and belief included many instances of bullying or harassment. Another key theme was claims stemming from difficulties over working hours, time off or leave to follow religious practices, promotion or retirement and workplace dress codes.

For people who feel that their employers may not be accommodating their religious needs, getting legal advice is often the next logical step.

Some workers can avail themselves of the legal expertise provided by their trade union, and law centres can also recommend what to do next. However, for many, the potential added expense of a claim plays a big factor in deciding whether to proceed.

High-profile cases, such as the British Airways check-in employee Nadia Eweida's dispute over her right to wear a cross at work, usually only attract the support of campaigning groups if they are in some way landmark rulings or test cases that may pave the way for a change of law.

Samantha Mangwana is a solicitor at the law firm Russell Jones & Walker. She regularly represents employees in cases relating to employment discrimination both in the public and private sectors. She advises that anyone who feels they may have grounds should seek legal advice as early as possible to determine their chances of success. The firm offers a helpful online questionnaire, EqualityXpress, that prospective clients can fill out for assessment in advance of speaking to the legal team. Mangwana also suggests that those planning to make a claim should do so sooner rather than later, as advancing a case often necessitates adhering to strict deadlines.

While many of the headline-grabbing cases tend to be related to rights to wear religious manifestations, in practice Mangwana says the overwhelming majority of cases are those more akin to what most people might understand as race-related discrimination. Many of the cases that she handles are instances where workers have been denied opportunities to progress or have been disadvantaged as a result of their religious faith. She points out that in the vast majority of cases, settlement is reached before going to trial.

Mangwana also feels working people are woefully badly informed when it comes to knowing their rights and what they can expect from their employers. "I feel it's a real shame that we don't put more effort into educating people about their employment rights, and believe it should be a subject that could be taught at school," says Mangwana.

* Citizens Advice Bureau ( www.adviceguide.org.uk), Directgov ( www.direct.gov.uk), Acas ( www.acas.org.uk), Equality and Human Rights Commission ( www.equalityhumanrights.com), Russell Jones & Walker ( www.rjw.co.uk)

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