25 March 2015

Letter to America: New rights for obese workers?

In Europe no specific legal protection applies to employees by virtue of them being obese. However, with obesity on the increase in Europe, the position of obese people has started to receive greater attention in the employment courts. In the UK, the courts have found that obese people whose medical conditions render them disabled are protected from discrimination as a result.  

Now the European court has gone further, in a ruling with implications across the EU. It has confirmed that, for now, obesity itself is not a characteristic which is protected in law against discrimination. However, where excessive weight is so severe that it impedes a worker’s ability to participate fully in working life, then it may constitute a disability, which is protected against discrimination. There is no need for a separately diagnosed medical condition.   

This ruling obliges employers not only to protect such severely obese staff from detrimental treatment - but actually imposes a positive obligation on the employer to adapt the workplace to protect them from disadvantage. European employers have been left without guidance as to the exact trigger point for these obligations, and may find themselves needing to initiate sensitive discussions with obese staff about their needs.

It’s a small step towards treating obese people as a group requiring special protection. With ever-increasing numbers of obese people in Europe, this may not be the end of the road for this development.

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