Court describes effects of cancer as disability for the first time

12 March 2018
Area of action: Employment
Grounds of discrimination: DisabilityOther areas of discrimination

An employer should have made adaptations to enable a woman who was unable to work for a long time due to cancer to continue doing her job, according to a ruling by the Brussels Labour Court. This is the first time that a court has recognised the lasting effects of cancer as a disability. The judge ordered the employer to pay 12,500 euros in compensation to the employee for discrimination. Unia acted as intervener in the case.

As the case involves a disability, the employer cannot simply refuse the request to make adaptations to working and employment conditions. This is specified in anti-discrimination legislation. ‘The law requires reasonable adjustments to be made, and aids to be used to eliminate obstacles. The woman in question, who was a saleswoman, asked to gradually start working again. The employer turned down her request, and she was fired shortly afterwards,' says Els Keytsman, director of Unia.

On the basis of this ruling, other employees who are recovering from cancer can ask their boss for adapted working conditions. 'If the boss refuses, going to court is an option, but at Unia we prefer to get the two parties round the table first', says Keytsman.

Picking up the threads again

‘Everyone knows someone with cancer. Being knocked sideways by illness is bad enough, but being sidelined all over again by your boss can be devastating. This is no isolated case. Employees on long-term sick leave often want to pick up the threads again, but tend to face a lack of understanding from their employer. Unia doesn’t have figures of its own on this, but a recent Dutch study showed that 57 per cent of former cancer patients meet with unhelpful reactions from their boss,’ notes Keytsman.

Many reintegration programmes are doomed to failure from the outset, because less than half of employers are familiar with the procedure and their obligations, according to findings by Mensura. 'Unia has also noticed that employers don’t always know what constitutes a reasonable adaptation. We therefore welcome the fact that quite a few study days are being organised on this subject. Our online training for HR people has also been a success,’ says Keytsman.

The human impact

Unia stresses that if you exclude people, it also prevents them from feeling involved in society. 'It’s much better for both employees and employers to focus on inclusion. It’s about seeing people in terms of their possibilities rather than how ill or disabled they are. If employees are able to return to work after their treatment without fear of dismissal and if they can count on their boss being flexible, they become more loyal,’ she adds.

Are you in a similar situation to the woman in this case? Contact your trade union or occupational physician. Unia will of course also be happy to help you.

Read the full ruling.

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