By Thomas Dupaquier
By Thomas Dupaquier
Rabat – The European Court of Justice has ruled that companies can ban employees from wearing headscarves and any other religious symbols.
They ruled that the prohibition of wearing any visible political or religious symbols does not constitute direct discrimination.
The ECJ ruling on two joint cases allows companies to set up internal rules banning political, philosophical or religious symbols if they wish to maintain a neutral image. It will now serve as the reference for private businesses across the European Union.
This controversial ruling has prompted much debate over whether it would be as severely enforced for all religious symbols or end up only affecting Muslim women wearing headscarves. Amnesty International Europe has reacted by calling the rulings “disappointing” and as giving “greater leeway to employers to discriminate against women – and men – on the grounds of religious belief.
The case had been brought to the ECJ by two women from Belgium and France who had been dismissed from their jobs for refusing to stop wearing their headscarves to work. However, both cases differ slightly.
The Belgian woman, Samira Achbita, was fired in June 2006 from G4S Secure Solutions where she was working as a receptionist after refusing to remove her headscarf. G4S Secure Solutions claimed she violated an unwritten company rule banning employees from wearing religious signs. Soon after she warned her employer of her desire to start wearing the headscarf, they modified their company rules to specifically note that it is not allowed to wear signs of any political, philosophical or religious beliefs.
The French plaintiff, Asma Bougnaoui, was dismissed in 2009 from Micropole Univers, where she had been working since 2008, without any prior warnings. She had refused to stop wearing her headscarf after a client, the insurance company Groupama, complained that the young woman had made a couple people uneasy. Micropole Univers argued the headscarf was an obstacle to working with their client.
The European Court confirmed the ruling by the Belgium Justice in the case of Samira Achbita, saying: “An internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination.” However they found that Bougnaoui had suffered discrimination and that a customers’ objections did not warrant a legitimate cause for dismissing her.
The ECJ stated that “In the absence of such a rule, the willingness of an employer to take account of the wishes of a customer no longer to have the employer’s services provided by a worker wearing an Islamic headscarf cannot be considered an occupational requirement that could rule out discrimination.”
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.