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Freedom of religion protected in workplace

Question:

My employer is requiring me to work over weekends as part of my new manager responsibilities. Although I have no problem with working extra hours, the work often clashes with my religious observances over the weekend.

I’ve discussed this with my employer, but my employer is threatening to take my manager position away if I don’t work continuously over the weekend.

What can I do?

Answer:

Freedom of religion is a fundamental human right.

This right extends to the workplace and may only be limited in exceptional circumstances. There must accordingly always be a balance between the rights of the employee as well as the workplace requirements of the employer.

The Employment Equity Act, 1998 (“EEA”) provides further support to this fundamental right by expressly prohibiting unfair discrimination based on religion and requiring employers to accommodate employees and their religious prac­tices.

Our labour courts also require employers to accommodate the religion and practices of their employees.

In a recent decision of the Labour Appeal Court, it was held that before an employer considers sanctions due to non-compliance with workplace rules due to religious grounds, it must be considered if the sanctions are justifiable.

To do this, consideration must be given to the level of burden which would be placed on the operations of the employer if accommodated; the nature and importance of the specific workplace rule; how closely the employee’s non-compliance of the workplace rule is related to their religious beliefs; and whether any other means exist in terms of which the employee may have been reasonably accommodated.

Should an employer, considering the above considerations, be found to have unfairly discriminated against an employee based on their religion, they may be liable for a fine, payment of compensation, damages, or any other suitable remedy in furtherance of the objectives of the EEA.

It is important to understand that freedom of religion is protected, and employer’s will have to balance an employee’s right to religion against their business needs and must reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious freedom unless it is impossible to do so without causing itself undue hardship.

Freedom of religion however is not an absolute right and the merits of each situation will have to be considered.

If discussions with your employer to accommodate your beliefs don’t succeed, it may therefore be advisable to seek the help of an attorney or labour specialist to help you correctly address the matter with the employer.

– Ruwald Wilson, associate, Phatshoane Henney Attorneys

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