• International Workplace
  • 14 March 2017

ECJ ruling could lead to employers banning religious symbols at work

A ruling from the European Court of Justice will mean employers can bar staff from wearing visible religious symbols such as the burka, if it is included as part of prohibitions including other religious and political symbols.

The ruling came in the ECJ’s first decision on the issue of women wearing Islamic headscarves at work, following two employees in Belgium and France who were dismissed for refusing to remove their headscarves, which did not cover the face.

The Belgian woman had been working as a receptionist for G4S Secure Solutions, which has a general ban on wearing visible religious or political symbols, while the French claimant is an IT consultant who was told to remove her headscarf after a client complained. 

The G4S dispute, which started in 2006, was originally based on an “unwritten rule” banning employees wearing signs of their political, philosophical or religious beliefs, and the company’s workplace regulations were not updated until a day after the woman started wearing a hijab. 

"An internal rule of an undertaking which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign does not constitute direct discrimination," the Court said in a statement.

"However, 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."

Amnesty International welcomed the ruling on the French case that “employers are not at liberty to pander to the prejudices of their clients” but said bans on religious symbols opened “a backdoor to precisely such prejudice”.