The Human Rights Review Tribunal decided this week in favour of an employee’s right not to work on Saturdays for religious reasons.
The decision may still be appealed but the Director of the Office of Human Rights Proceedings, Robert Kee, who represented the employee at the Tribunal hearing along with Senior Solicitor, Jane Emerson, said that it is an important decision in that many small to medium sized businesses would be unaware of their obligations under the Human Rights Act.
“This is a case about the right of an employee not to be discriminated against by their employer on the ground of religion,” Mr Kee said.
“This is an important decision as it demonstrates employers’ obligations under the Human Rights Act, which are often overlooked, particularly by small to medium sized businesses.”
The employee, Mr Meulenbroek, who worked for Vision Antenna Systems Ltd, was awarded $25,000 damages for humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings.
He was also awarded approximately $15,000 for pecuniary loss.
The Tribunal’s judgment noted that, like many employers and enterprises in New Zealand, Vision is a small company without a human resources department and without access to other resources typical in larger operations.
It did not know of, or comprehend its obligations, under the Human Rights Act.
It also noted that unless the relevant provisions of the Human Rights Act are understood and diligently applied, financial consequences of a potentially substantial nature can follow.
The need to take properly informed advice must be emphasised.
The Human Rights Commission’s guidelines for employers and employees provide good advice on workplace requirements and can be found here.
Mr Meulenbroek had worked for Vision Antenna Systems Ltd for a number of years (including Saturdays), when he re-joined the Seventh Day Adventist Church in 2011.
In late 2011 he approached Vision to request that he no longer have to work Saturdays, so he could observe it as a day of rest in accordance with his religious beliefs.
Steps were taken to reduce Mr Meulenbroek’s Saturday work. However, in 2012 he was requested to work on a number of Saturdays.
His employment was terminated in September 2012 after he refused these requests on the basis of his religion.
The Human Rights Review Tribunal found that Mr Meulenbroek was a model employee, and the reason for his employment being terminated was that his rediscovered faith prevented him from working on Saturdays.
The Tribunal further found that Vision had failed to establish that accommodating Mr Meulenbroek’s religion (by allowing him not to work Saturdays) would have unreasonably disrupted Vision’s business activities.
The Office of Human Rights Proceedings (OHRP) is an independent office within the Human Rights Commission (HRC). It is headed by the Director of Human Rights Proceedings.
The OHRP provides free legal representation to complainants to take selected discrimination cases to the Human Rights Review Tribunal (the Tribunal).
In some cases the OHRP will provide representation for appeals of Tribunal decisions to the High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court.