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Requiring removal of Islamic headscarf at work 'discrimination'

14 July 2016, 00:45 CET
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Requiring removal of Islamic headscarf at work 'discrimination'

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(LUXEMBOURG) - A company policy requiring an employee to remove her Islamic headscarf when in contact with clients is unlawful discrimination, according to the opinion of the EU Court's advocate-general.

A Muslim woman employed as a design engineer by Micropole SA, a French IT consultancy company, refused to remove her Islamic headscarf when asked to do so following a complaint from a client of the firm's. She was subsequently dismissed. She challenged her dismissal before the French courts.

In her opinion, advocate General Eleanor Sharpston noted the wide differences between the legal systems of the EU Member States in relation to the wearing of religious apparel and religious signs at work - particularly as regards public-sector employees. She has restricted her observations to the private sector, however.

The Advocate General concluded that the employee's dismissal amounted to direct discrimination on the ground of religion or belief. It was made clear that there is nothing to suggest that the employee was unable to perform her duties as a design engineer because she wore an Islamic headscarf.

Although the freedom to conduct a business is a general principle of EU law, it is subject to limitations, including the need to protect the rights and freedoms of others. Direct discrimination cannot be justified on the ground of potential financial loss that might be caused to the employer, said the Advocate General

French law does provide for a derogation for 'occupational activities within churches and other public or private organisations', however, this did not apply to Micropole's activities.

The Advocate General also observed that a company policy imposing an entirely neutral dress code was likely to result in indirect discrimination. while such a policy can be justified if it pursues 'a legitimate aim and is proportionate', she remarked that it is difficult to see how, in the present case, Micropole's prohibition could be regarded as proportionate. This was, however, ultimately a question for the national court, said the Advocate General.

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