Religious and belief tolerance necessary for workplace

For most employees, the workplace is more than just where they earn money, said Heiner Bielefeldt, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion.

“Besides providing an income, the workplace constitutes an important part of an employee’s everyday world, with high relevance for individual self-esteem, social connections and inclusion into the community and the society at large,” he said.

Because of this high importance to the workplace in everyday life, the issue of religious intolerance and discrimination within employment must be tackled, Bielefeldt said.

Bielefeldt made his comments as part of his presentation of his report on the elimination of all forms of religious intolerance, during the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Third Committee. His report focused on freedom of religion or belief in the workplace, an area, he said that needed more study because of how central a role the workplace plays in people’s lives.

There are many reasons for religious and belief intolerance in the workplace, Bielefeldt explained. These include previous prejudices against religious or minority beliefs which may poison the atmosphere of a work place, or even public and private employers invoking the notion of “neutrality” of the corporate image to restrict the open display of religious identities at work.

There are also indirect forms of religious and belief discrimination, often hidden by seemingly “neutral” rules, Bielefeldt said. For example, holiday leave typically reflect the dominant religious culture.

Quite often intolerance is based on misunderstandings, Bielefeldt said. For instance there could be an assumption that measures of reasonable accommodation for religion or belief would result in favouritism at the expense of the principle of equality.

“Combating discrimination requires a comprehensive approach of tackling both direct and indirect forms of discrimination based on religion or belief,” he said. “A culture of trustful and respectful communication is needed in order to identify the specific needs of persons belonging to religious or belief minorities.”

Bielefeldt made a number of recommendations in combating direct and indirect forms of discrimination based on religion or belief. These included States establishing better anti-discrimination laws, which would cover employment in public and private institutions; States providing diversity training and advisory services for public and private employers concerning religious tolerance; and employers developing policies of reasonable accommodation of religious or belief diversity as well as contextualising the application of the principle of equality at the workplace.

He said any limitations of the right to manifest one’s religion or belief in the workplace, if deemed necessary, must always be specific and narrowly defined; and be necessary to pursue a legitimate purpose, as well as proportionate to the said purpose.

Public and private institutions can successfully negotiate ways of accommodating religious and belief diversity, Bielefeldt said.

“In short, provided there is good will on all sides, practical solutions can be found in most cases,” he said.

2 January 2015

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