In a judgment of 14 October 2017, the European Court of Justice based at Luxembourg has sent the wrong signal to countries in the EU countries at a sensitive time when the conflict between religious practice and secular laws has intensified. The Court has ruled that employers with justifiable rules on ‘dress neutrality’ can ban workers from wearing any political, philosophical or religious symbols at work.
This is a time when Western countries are generally moving towards less tolerant regimes and applying stricter controls on display of religious symbols. Sikhs in the EU supported by the British and the global Sikh community, should be addressing such issues through own governments and through the United Nations. More so as the UK leaves the EU. We need to bear in mind that religious freedom is enshrined in the United Nations Charter (Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion…). In the past, United Sikhs organisation has already shown us the way by scoring at least one success through the UN against the French turban ban.
To quote a Sikh Council UK briefing, “In an increasingly hostile and nationalist environment within the political cultures of European countries it will further legitimise discrimination against religious minorities and push to the margins those who maintain a visible manifestation of their faith identity.” The EU Sikhs are worried.
The Court decided in favour of employers who wish to promote “a corporate identity to the exclusion of employees with a visible religious identity”. The ruling can encourage EU employers to practise all sorts of discrimination which can go further than just religious discrimination. By extending the same logic an employer can exclude employees on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, disability or even race and colour! To quote the Sikh Council UK briefing, “It is a slippery slope if the only reason for legitimising the discriminatory treatment is that the employer is free to establish a corporate identity to pursue its business.”
The judgement strengthens the legal position of employers influenced by extreme right nationalist agendas to restrict or even ban the “visible manifestations of religious belief in the workplace.” What is visible manifestation of a religious belief can become a matter of subjective interpretation by a biased employer in a right wing political state. All sorts of excuses can be used to justify discrimination against minorities.
In case of the Sikhs it can be applied to further restrict identity Sikhs from seeking jobs in the EU. Sikhs who keep hair have no religious alternative but to cover the hair with a turban. Sikhs are ignored by the media but suffer the most by such restrictions. With Britain leaving the EU, the British and other diaspora Sikhs need a global strategy to address such forms of religious persecution through own governments right up to the United Nations. As a colleague, Prof Nirmal Singh, has put it, “It will be a sad day when market values are seen as more important than moral [religious] values”.
(Note: As a matter of clarification, we need to remember that the European Court of Justice at Luxembourg has jurisdiction in the EU only and is not the same as the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg established by the Council of Europe. )
Gurmukh Singh OBE