The Brussels public transport operator STIB-MIVB has decided not to appeal a discrimination conviction related to employees wearing headscarves, paving the way for an abolishment of the existing ban on head coverings that signal religious, political or philosophical beliefs.
“STIB has always been a pioneer in the field of diversity,” said STIB’s Chairman of the Board Merlijn Erbuer.
“It is because we want to continue along this path that the management committee decided not to appeal the decision of the labour court, despite its imperfections.”
The case against STIB goes back to December 2015, when a woman wearing a headscarf first applied for a job with the transit agency through an intermediary company.
After being rejected for the job, she applied again in January of 2016 and was again rejected because STIB employment regulations do not allow signs of religious, political or philosophical beliefs.
A labour court ruled this a case of double discrimination at the beginning of May, saying that not only is a ban on headscarves disproportionate to the intended purpose (guaranteeing the neutrality of the public transit company), but it also results in gender discrimination.
Because Muslim men working for STIB are allowed to grow their beards, Muslim women are at a disadvantage, the court found.
According to Bruzz, the ruling came as a surprise even to Unia, the organisation which brought the case. Unia describes itself as an independent public institution that fights discrimination and promotes equal opportunities in Belgium.
La @STIBMIVB condamnée par le tribunal du travail de Bruxelles: en rejetant deux fois une candidate qui porte la foulard, la STIB a appliqué une politique de neutralité incohérente qui nuit à la diversité: https://t.co/mL2LHgS7VR
La neutralité exclusive? https://t.co/chwPpRatc8
— Unia (@unia) May 6, 2021
Translation: @STIBMIVB condemned by the Brussels Labour Court: by twice rejecting a candidate wearing a headscarf, the STIB applied an inconsistent neutrality policy that undermines diversity. Exclusive neutrality?
Unia argues that a general ban affecting all public servants could be considered to be in violation of anti-discrimination laws and freedom of religion if found to be excessive and disproportionate, or if there are other alternatives which would have a less infringing impact on the fundamental rights of the worker – both of which the organisation feels apply in the case of STIB rules regarding head coverings.
STIB must now pay a €51,00 fine and decide whether or not to abandon the neutrality rule.
The case has sharply divided Brussels politicians and political parties. The ban on headscarves has been discussed at length in the past, with no solutions or compromises found.
“Totally incomprehensible,” is how Chairman Georges-Louis Bouchez (MR) described the verdict.
“How can this be so wrong?” he tweeted.
“Inclusion requires a neutral state. The inward-looking attitude engendered by communitarianism is the destruction of liberal democracy. The work of the left, which fought for the secularisation of society against the Catholic religion…”
Comment peut on à ce point se fourvoyer ? L’inclusion passe par un Etat neutre. Le repli sur soi engendré par le communautarisme est la destruction de la démocratie libérale. L’œuvre de cette gauche qui a lutté pour la sécularisation de la société face à la religion catholique… https://t.co/Uf8iWDXr16
— Georges-L BOUCHEZ (@GLBouchez) June 1, 2021
But Brussels deputy PTB Youssef Handichi said he was “relieved” and referred to it as a victory.
“We congratulate the executive committee for this inclusive and courageous decision,” Handichi said.
“The parties in government have the opportunity to significantly reduce discrimination and promote the emancipation of women, which requires work. They should therefore ensure that women workers are ultimately judged on their skills and the quality of service, rather than on their appearance and religion, by amending the labour regulations of STIB and other public institutions, as Actiris did in 2015.”
Handichi added that, “It is now up to the government to act by confirming the decision.”
Indeed there is still a chance at the ban remaining in place. With so many different political parties at odds over the ruling (along with disagreement within the majority party), it could pass to the city to make a final decision.
One of the two government commissioners is from the Open VLD party, and could start a procedure for non-compliance with the management agreement, which would make the Brussels Government obligated to look into it.
That commissioner has until Thursday to do so.
Regardless, STIB’s neutrality policy will now be reviewed through a participatory process, and the agency must decide if and how to change it by the end of June at the latest.
In the long term, however, the Management Committee has announced its intention to allow the wearing of certain religious symbols within the company.
At the same time, STIB says it wants to ensure that the service provided to the public remains neutral and that the freedom of expression of all employees in the workplace is guaranteed.
The current ruling will remain in force until the end of the participatory process.