international employment law firm alliance L&E Global

Sweden: An Employer’s Prohibition of Wearing Islamic Headscarves in the Workplace was not Considered Discriminatory by the Labour Court

Author: Nina Voigt Dahl

A neutrality policy of a company providing security guards for public transport prohibited employees from, inter alia, wearing visible religious symbols at work. The policy covered all visible political, philosophical, and religious symbols and applied to all employees without any distinction. A female security guard began to wear an Islamic headscarf, which was not approved by the employer. She, therefore, brought the case to the Labour Court, claiming that she had been discriminated against on the grounds of sex and religion.

First, the Labour Court concluded that the neutrality policy had not resulted in direct discrimination. The court then asked whether the employee had suffered indirect discrimination. The company claimed three purposes for the policy: i) to reduce the risk that employees and others are exposed to threats and violence in the work environment; ii) to present a neutral image in relation to customers; and iii) to avoid social conflicts between workers. The latter two purposes may, in principle, constitute legitimate aims in accordance with the case law of the Court of Justice. However, the first purpose was found to be the main reason for the company’s neutrality policy.

The employer has a far-reaching responsibility for the working environment under national and EU law. According to the Labour Court, the company’s desire to reduce the risk of threats and violence in the work environment was a legitimate aim within the meaning of the Discrimination Act. It was in the view of the Labour Court clear that political, philosophical, and religious symbols may, in certain situations, be perceived as provocative by persons with opposing sympathies and beliefs. The view that wearing visible symbols could increase the risk of threats and violence in the context of the task of security guards on public transport was considered justified. Furthermore, it had not been suggested that there had been any more appropriate or less intrusive measure to address this particular risk than the general prohibition laid down in the neutrality policy in question. The prohibition also appeared to be proportionate in relation to the risks to the safety of employees and others that it sought to reduce.

In conclusion, the Labour Court found that the neutrality policy did not constitute direct or indirect discrimination, as it was applied consistently and was an appropriate and necessary measure for reducing the risk of threats and violence in the workplace.

Key Action Points for Human Resources and In-House Counsel

Although there are several EU cases on discrimination in neutrality policies, such as C-148/22 from November 2023, this was the first Swedish case on the issue. When it is motivated based on the risk in the work environment, a neutrality policy prohibiting religious symbols can be considered non-discriminatory.