UK obesity laws don’t comply with EU directives: what this means for employers

A recent assessment of the anti-discrimination laws on obesity have revealed that UK legislation is in desperate need of reform

This assessment, in the form of the academic paper ‘All About that Bass’? Is Non‐Ideal‐Weight Discrimination Unlawful in the UK?, was co-written by the national training director of the Employment Tribunals of England and Wales, Philip Rostant.

Those affected by obesity in the UK can currently claim compensation through UK disability legislation; however, this is only the case if they can prove that their weight creates a substantial financial deficit, preventing them from undertaking jobs or tasks that others not considered obese are able to complete. This is based on a medical model of disability, which has been subject to criticism in the past for portraying disabilities in a degrading manner. This model differs from the social model upon which the EU directives are based.

The social model of disability, in comparison, arose as a reaction to this medical model and is the model that EU law leans towards. This model suggests that it is the way in which society is organised that contributes to disabling people, as opposed to the outcome of a person’s physical impairment.

A Personnel Today survey from 2005, which questioned over 2,000 HR professionals, revealed that an astounding 93% admitted that, when presented with two applicants for a job with identical experience and qualifications, they would choose the candidate with the more ‘normal weight’ over an obese candidate. The same survey showed that 30% of the respondents believed that obesity is a valid medical reason to choose not to employ somebody.

Should the UK remain part of the EU, professionals suggest that the laws surrounding obesity and disability will need to change to conform to EU standards. As shown by Rostant’s co-written paper and the aforementioned survey results, the current Equality Act 2010 offers very tenuous protection for those suffering from obesity, meaning employers are more heavily protected by the act. If and when the UK laws come under review, employers may find themselves having to adhere to the social model of disability, which provides greater protection for those suffering from obesity.

The first tribunal in the UK to consider obesity as a disability was in Northern Ireland. In the case of Bickerstaff v Butcher, the tribunal agreed that the claimant’s weight constituted a disability following the European Court of Justice’s ruling that stated if the claimant’s weight affects their ability to participate fully and effectively at work, it could be considered a disability and therefore redress could be claimed.

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