Legal reform may end workplace discrimination against Sikhs

The closing of an employment law loophole potentially ends years of workplace discrimination against Sikhs. Under The Employment Act 1989, Sikhs were exempt from wearing safety helmets on construction sites.

But the exemption did not apply to ‘less risky’ environments, such as factories and warehouses. That anomaly in employment laws became the focus of The Sikh Council UK, which is the largest representative body of British Sikhs, campaigned for a decade to bring about change.

The extension comes into practise in all workplaces on October 1 via the Deregulation Act 2015, which received Royal Ascent in late March.

Sikh Council UK stressed examples of discrimination where Sikhs faced disciplinary hearings, and some cases, faced dismissal in jobs that lasted for several years.

Yet, there exceptions do remain in specific roles (that criteria also applies to Northern Ireland):

(a)is a member of Her Majesty’s forces or a person providing support to Her Majesty’s forces, and

(b)is at the workplace— (i)to take part in a military operation in circumstances where the wearing of a safety helmet is necessary to protect the Sikh from a risk of injury, or (ii)to receive training in how to take part in such an operation in circumstances of that kind.”

Stephen Simpson, XpertHR principal employment law editor, stated: “Employers with Sikh employees may already have had to deal with this sensitive issue.

“The key problem is having to balance health and safety needs with the employee’s right to express their religious beliefs freely, to avoid the risk of an indirect race or religious discrimination claim. This new rule at least provides certainty for employers”

The spokesman for The Sikh Council UK, Gurinder Singh Josan said: “This issue is very important for British Sikhs. In the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s when Sikhs first arrived in the UK they could only obtain employment by firstly removing their religiously mandated turbans. “We welcome the recognition by UK parliament of the importance of the turban to observant Sikhs and that they should be allowed to be full citizens of the UK whilst being able to freely practice their faith.”