Unveiling controversy

Posted on 6 Nov 2013 by The Manufacturer

Can and should manufacturers consider banning the wearing of veils in the workplace? Andrew Forrest, an associate in the employment team at law firm Weightmans LLP, explains the relevance of the debate and the considerations employers need to take into account.

Andrew Forest, Weightmans LLP

This weekend, former Justice Secretary Ken Clarke came out against a September ruling which confirmed that women giving evidence in court should be allowed to wear veils.

Mr Calrke forthrightly declared that this decision undermines the integrity of the trial process by obscuring facial expressions and body language with “a kind of bag”.

The arguments for and against the wearing of veils in the courtroom are interesting in their own right.

But employers should now be alert to the possibility that controversy in the justice system may spread to controversy over the wearing of veils in the workplace and in educational institutions. There is precedent for this.

The banning of the full face veil in the public sphere has been debated across the continent and restrictions on its wearing exist in the Germany, Italy, Belgium and a number of municipalities in Spain.

In France a harder line has been taken where the wearing of the ‘voiles integrals’, veils that cover the face have been banned in public places. The legislation makes it illegal to wear garments such as the burka or niqab in public save in places of religious worship and, France’s Constitutional Court has ruled that the ban does not impinge upon civil liberties.

Despite the ban in France, the UK remains neutral in its legislation, a former immigration minister Damien Green has said that trying to pass a law banning women wearing the full face veil would be ‘un British’ and at odds with the UK’s tolerant and mutually respectful society.

The arguments for the right to wear the veil are firmly entrenched in individual human rights, the freedom of expression, culture, religion and belief. It must be noted however, that whilst the Qur’an instructs women (and men) to dress modestly, Islamic scholars do differ as to whether the veil is actually required for women in public.

The arguments against the wearing of the veil are diverse, ranging from: an infringement on the rights of women – particularly those who would not choose to wear the veil but who are pressurised or face violence if they refuse to do so; to protect public security and to prevent menace as the veil may be used as a disguise by terrorists or criminals; to promote the integration of Muslim women into western society etc.

As political debate continues, employers are faced with a dilemma as to what to do should a Muslim woman elect to wear a full face veil in the workplace. Any challenge they make to such a decision, could lead to accusations of discrimination on grounds of race, sex, religion and belief or for infringements of the Human Rights Act, all of which may lead to expensive and time consuming legal challenge, unwanted publicity and public criticism/scrutiny.

In order to introduce or to continue any requirement for Muslim women not to wear face veils employers are advised to be alert to the need to justify this policy – to be legally sound, all requirements should be based upon ‘proportionate means to achieve a legitimate aim’.

In the manufacturing industry, such requirements will ideally be associated with a well communicated and justifiable dress code, introduced following consultation with the workforce and its representatives.

Clear communication and reasoned explanation as to why these restrictions exist can often prevent issues arising in the first place.

Manufacturers should be aware that the dress code restriction may include the banning of the veil for safety or security reasons, or where it prevents an employee from carrying out their role effectively. For example, a veil can act as a barrier to non-verbal signals and communication, which can often be essential in manufacturing environments.

It is important that employers consider fully whether their objectives can be met without introducing a ban. Once a decision is made, it is crucial that the dress code be drafted in neutral terms so that it is not seem to be targeting any particular religion or group.

What is for certain is that this debate looks set to continue for many years to come.


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