What is the Achbita case?

20 October 2020
Area of action: Employment
Grounds of discrimination: Religious or philosophical beliefs

In 2006, S. Achbita was fired when she started wearing a headscarf at work. The case came before the Labour Court of Antwerp (2009), the Court of Cassation (2015), the Court of Justice of the European Union (2017) and the Labour Court of Ghent (2020). Below you can find a full chronology. 

In 2006, S. Achbita, a Muslim woman who had been working for the security firm G4S for three years, started wearing a headscarf. According to the personnel manager of G4S, the company had an unwritten neutrality policy. According to G4S, the headscarf was not compatible with the uniform receptionists had to wear to give them a 'recognisable and neutral look'. A negotiation attempt by Unia came to nothing, and Achbita lost her job.

Labour court of Antwerp

In 2009, Unia went to court. The court of Antwerp ruled that there was no direct discrimination on the basis of religion, because the law doesn’t protect the external manifestation of religion. Moreover, according to the court, it would be a legitimate objective for a company to show neutrality towards its clients and other employees.

2015: Question to the Court of Justice of the European Union

The Antwerp Labour Court largely confirmed the ruling. At Unia's insistence, the Court of Cassation asked the Court of Justice of the European Union on 9 March 2015 to clarify whether a general ban on the expression of beliefs in the workplace constitutes direct or indirect discrimination. Unia asked the question because the answer to this question determines what justification is available to the employer.

2017: judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Union

The ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union followed on 14 March 2017.

A private company can only prohibit the headscarf for those workers who have visual contact with the customers. If the employer decides that the personnel need to have a neutral appearance, this policy must be applied in a coherent and systematic fashion, meaning not in response to a specific request from the customer. Finally, the employer must investigate whether employees who wish to openly wear religious insignia can be assigned to a different job, without any visual contact with the customers. 

Read more about the ruling of the European Court of Justice.

2020: judgment of the labour court of Ghent

On 12 October 2020, the Labour Court of Ghent decided that there was no discrimination in the case of Achbita vs. G4S. According to the labour court, a policy of neutrality does not disadvantage Muslim women who want to wear a headscarf more than other workers. According to the Labour Court, G4S should also not examine alternatives such as a transfer to a position without customer contact or a neutral headscarf.

Read more about the ruling of the labour court of Ghent in French or in Dutch.