Bad hair day

Photo by Jessica Felicio on Unsplash

It never ceases to amaze me that employers and service providers fall foul of arbitrary codes or policies which they impose on employees and service users. Regular readers of this Blog will be aware of previous articles covering discrimination or less favourable treatment which arises because employers or service providers issue generalised guidelines which discriminate against individuals because they happen to have certain hairstyles or wear beards or jewellery.

It is this lack of awareness that often leads to legal action in terms of the Equality Act 2010. By imposing a policy, criterion or practice (PCP) across the board, employers and other organisations could be setting themselves up for a fall specifically in relation to Section 19 of the Equality Act 2010. This part of the Act makes indirect discrimination unlawful i.e. it is an example of prohibited conduct by reason of a person or a group possessing a protected characteristic such as race or religion (Sections 9 and 10 respectively)

Since the introduction of the Race Relations Act 1976 (now repealed by the Equality Act 2010), we have seen a number of well known cases involving indirect discrimination being determined by Courts and Tribunals. So, you would think by now that employers and other organisations would have learned the lesson by now – apparently not as we shall see shortly.

In short order, such bans or generalised restrictions may infringe religious and cultural expression and may not only be a breach of the Equality Act, but could also represent a breach of human rights laws under the Human Rights Act 1998 and Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Over the years, groups such as Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Sikhs and Rastafarians have brought successful legal actions for indirect discrimination on grounds of race and/or religion (see Mandla v DowellLee [1982] UKHL 7). Being Jewish or Sikh can be both a religious and a racial identity.

Taking all of the above on board, I was really interested to read a story in The Independent this weekend which highlighted the problems of schools imposing dress codes on pupils. I thought: haven’t we been here before and why does no one seem to learn?

The story in question involves Ruby Williams who was “repeatedly sent home from Urswick School in Hackney, East London because she had Afro hair”. The school seems to have reacted with gross insensitivity to the youngster by informing her that her hairstyle was a breach of school uniform policy and that it could “block other pupils from seeing the whiteboard”.

Ruby and her family took legal action against the school (with the support of the Equality and Human Rights Commission) and she has since been awarded an out of court settlement of £8,500. The settlement figure clearly reflects the distress which she has suffered and the fact that all this trouble took place when she was studying for her GCSE exams (remember the Vento Guidelines anyone?). Ruby’s father is a Rastafarian and he has often stressed to his daughter the cultural, racial and religious significance of Afro hairstyles.

Apart from indirect discrimination which the school’s policy has caused to Ruby Williams, she may well also have had a claim in terms of Section 13 (direct discrimination) and Section 26 (harassment) of the Equality Act 2010 for being singled out in this way by the school authorities.

Perhaps the staff and Governors of the school might find it appropriate to undertake an equality awareness course at the next in-service day?

It is always open to an employer or service provider to show that although indirect discrimination has taken place, it can be objectively justified e.g. on national security grounds or health and safety reasons (e.g. Singh v Rowntree MacKintosh [1979] ICR 554 and Panesar v Nestle Co Ltd [1980] IRLR 64 CA).

Each attempt to justify a provision, criterion or policy (PCP) will, of course, turn on its facts and it would be very foolish for organisations to think that there is some sort of magic bullet or get out of jail card which can be used in every situation to justify or excuse conduct which would otherwise amount to unlawful discrimination. Organisations should review policies on a regular basis and, if need be, this may necessitate the carrying out of an equality impact assessment.

A link to the story on The Independent’s website can be found below:

https://edition.independent.co.uk/editions/uk.co.independent.issue.080220/data/9323781/index.html

Related Blog Articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/07/09/boxing-clever/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/08/20/beardy-weirdy/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/21/indirect-discrimination/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/04/10/everyday-experiences-of-racism/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/14/hurt-feelings/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 9 February 2020

Mind your language!

Photo by Ilya Ilford on Unsplash

“Great big girl’s blouse!” or “a girly swot”. Harmless insults; a bit of banter; or perhaps an example of sexist language? Deborah Haynes, a journalist with Sky News, certainly took the view that these remarks were sexist in nature – even though men were the targets (see the link below).

https://news.sky.com/story/sky-views-girly-swot-big-girls-blouse-are-sexist-jibes-and-shouldnt-be-used-by-the-pm-11804690

The first of these remarks was uttered allegedly by Prime Minister Boris Johnson MP in the House of Commons last week and directed towards the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn MP. The second remark was in a memo written by the Prime Minister in which he was critical of David Cameron (one of his predecessors).

Mr Johnson is well known for his colourful language in both print and in his speeches, but he was called out last week in the House of Commons by the Labour MP, Tammanjeet Singh Dhesi who accused him in very blunt terms of making racist remarks about Muslim women who chose to wear the Islamic form of dress known as the burka as an outward sign of their religious beliefs and cultural background.

Mr Tammanjeet drew on his own experiences as a Sikh and the kinds of derogatory remarks that he had to endure. His speech was received very warmly on the Opposition benches of the House of Commons.

On the other hand, Mr Johnson attempted a defence of his language by saying that he had merely spoken up in favour of the good old fashioned liberal value of freedom of speech. It was not an entirely convincing performance from the Prime Minister and far from his finest hour at the despatch box.

The Equality Act 2010 recognises various forms of prohibited conduct such as direct discrimination (Section 13) and harassment (Section 26). Sexist, sectarian and homophobic remarks may well be taken as examples of direct discrimination. A sustained campaign of bullying to which an individual (with a particular protected characteristic) is subjected may amount to harassment.

It will be sensible for employers particularly to spell out to employees what is acceptable (and what is not) in terms of the kinds of language or behaviour in the work-place. If employers do nothing to check discriminatory remarks such as racist or sexist insults, there is a real danger that they could be held vicariously liable.

Had Mr Johnson been a mere mortal, some of his remarks may have come back to haunt him. Employers are entitled to take disciplinary action against those employees who have committed acts of discrimination. After all, they are merely protecting their position by not leaving themselves open to the threat of legal action by the victims.

From the employee’s perspective, engaging in offensive language could give the employer the right to treat this type of behaviour as gross misconduct. It should be recalled that, in terms of Section 98 of the Employment Rights Act 1998, misconduct committed by an employee can be punished by dismissal and such a termination of the employment contract may be entirely reasonable in the circumstances.

In short, no one should have to work in a place where there is a hostile, degrading or intimidating environment. Racist or sexist remarks can be highly suggestive of such a working environment if permitted to go unchecked and unchallenged. Maybe in future the Prime Minister would do well to mind his language.

Links to articles about the Prime Minister’s colourful turn of phrase can be found below:

https://news.sky.com/video/share-11802095

http://news.sky.com/story/boris-johnson-branded-david-cameron-girly-swot-leaked-document-reveals-11803807

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 7 September 2019

Is it cos I is black?

Ali G was (and still is) the memorable creation of the comedian, Sacha Baron Cohen. Ali G’s catchphrase was “Is it cos I is black?” and the comedian famously put this to a senior British police officer when he gatecrashed a political protest during a sketch for one of his TV shows on Channel 4.

Sacha Baron Cohen was making a very serious point when he wrote and planned such escapades: he was satirising the widespread racist sterotyping of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) groups in the UK by their fellow White British citizens. When the character of Ali G first made appearances on Channel 4’s The 11 o’clock Show in 1999, it’s worth remembering that it was less than 6 years after the murder of the black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, in London.

Coincidentally, in 1999, Sir William Macpherson, a retired judge of the English High Court, had published his Report on the Stephen Lawrence murder and one of his most famous conclusions concerned the levels of “institutional racism” in the Metropolitan Police Service (paragraphs 4.45 – 6.63).

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/277111/4262.pdf

Several years ago, I attended an event for Black History Month and members of the panel were recounting their experiences of racism in the UK. Glasgow City Councillor, Graham Campbell told the story of his cousin who worked at Ford’s Dagenham car plant who constantly had his locker broken into and vandalised by his white, work colleagues. More often than not, his work tools were stolen from the locker. Eventually, this young man started to carry his tools to and from the Ford plant in order to avoid having to replace them. He was stopped and searched regularly by the same police officers who asked him each time if the tools were for burglaries. This was the kind of harassment that black people typically experienced in Britain of the 1970s.

Racial stereotyping which leads to people from certain ethnic groups suffering (unlawful) less favourable treatment is an example of direct discrimination in terms of Sections 9 and 13 of the Equality Act 2010. Repeated examples of harassment on grounds of race would also constitute breaches of Sections 9 and 26 of the Equality Act 2010.

So, it was with some interest that I read an article in The Independent on Saturday 15 June 2019 which recounted an incident which had taken place in Maidstone in Kent whereby a white police officer had assumed that a black man must be a criminal just because he happened to be in an area which was perceived to be ‘white’.

In England and Wales, you are much more likely to be stopped and searched by the police if you happen to come from the black community:

It doesn’t seem as if attitudes to race in certain sections of the police have moved on much from the 1970s.

A link to the story in The Independent can be found below:††

‘Officer assumed black man was criminal in ‘white area

https://edition.independent.co.uk/editions/uk.co.independent.issue.150619/data/8959141/index.html

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 18 June 2019

The Outsiders?

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

The USA is still a very racially divided society in 2019, despite the fact that it elected Barack Obama, an African American to serve as 44th US President (2009-17). Despite this, we’ve seen the growth of the Black Lives Matter campaign in response to numerous instances of Police violence towards African Americans.

Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers American Football player caused controversy in August 2016 when he refused to stand for the US National Anthem as a protest against racism.

Civil Rights Leader, Martin Luther King Jr’s dream that his four little children would live in a nation where they would be judged not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character seems more remote than ever.

Teenage years can be a difficult experience for many young people. An interesting perspective on the teenage experiences of a young African American woman was recently published by the BBC.

This young person talked about not fitting in at a school where most of the pupils are overwhelmingly white. Feelings of exclusion and not being accepted by the majority (white student) population are reported:

‘I’m either too black or not black enough’: One teenager’s experience

This is what it means to be black: one African-American teenager’s experience, in her own words.

Postscript

Feelings of isolation are not just confined to African Americans. In a short film for the BBC, four young Black British men talk about their experiences of racism:

Photo by Tamarcus Brown on Unsplash

‘We’re judged for being black’

Four young black men share their experiences of being stereotyped and judged for the colour of their skin.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 23 April 2019