In the case of Chatwal v Wandsworth Borough Council, Mr Chatwal, a Sikh was employed by the Council as a customer services adviser. The Council introduced a rule that employees had to participate in a rota for cleaning the fridge in the staff’s communal kitchen. Mr Chatwal refused to be involved in the rota, because he said he might come into contact with meat in the fridge, which was forbidden due to his belief as an Amritdhari Sikh.
Mr Chatwal brought a claim for indirect religious discrimination. Basically, indirect religion discrimination occurs when an employer introduces a working condition or rule that disadvantages one religious group more than another. Mr Chatwal alleged that the Council’s requirement that he participated in a rota to clean the fridge was a working condition that disadvantaged his particular religious group.
Mr Chatwal said that as an Amritdhari Sikh, he had vowed never to touch meat. He also said that he was a member of a particular sub-group of the Sikh community called the Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha (GNNSJ) and that at least some members of this particular sub-group shared the same belief about not touching meat.
The reason why Mr Chatwal’s evidence was so important was because the employment tribunal dismissed his claim. The tribunal said that he wasn’t able to show that a significant number of others of the same religion shared his belief, because there was nothing in Sikh scriptures that did not allow Sikhs to touch meat. In addition, the rules of the GNNSJ did not allow meat to be eaten, but it said nothing about whether touching meat was forbidden. Mr Chatwal appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT).
The EAT allowed the appeal because it said that the employment tribunal had failed to properly explain why it had concluded that a significant number of others didn’t share the same belief when it had heard four different pieces of evidence that indicated that touching meat was forbidden. This evidence included Mr Chatwal’s own evidence, a letter from the President of a gurdwara (a Sikh place of worship), a letter from a member of the GNNSJ and some additional expert evidence, all of which supported the view that there was, in fact, a group that shared the same religious belief as Mr Chatwal.
In simple terms, the EAT said that there was clear evidence that some other Sikhs shared the same belief that touching meat was forbidden. This case is an example of the complex nature of indirect discrimination claims. The law does not require that there has to be a significant number of people that share a religious belief - there only has to be evidence that the belief is shared by some other people.
However, employers do have a defence to an indirect discrimination claim if they can show that the rule or working condition is necessary for running the business, and there is no other way of achieving it. For example, saying that applicants for a job must be clean shaven puts members of the Sikh religious group at a disadvantage. However, this rule would be justified if the job involved handling food (other than, perhaps, meat) and it could be shown that having a beard was a genuine hygiene risk.
In the Chatwal case, it would, of course, be highly unlikely that the Council would be able to show that the rota rule for Mr Chatwal was absolutely necessary and that there was no other way of ensuring that the fridge was cleaned that would not indirectly discriminate against his religious group – we will let you know how this case progresses as the EAT has sent the case back to the original employment tribunal to reconsider its decision.