Treat ‘fattism’ as seriously as workplace racism, says employment judge

Calls to bring weight in line with other protected characteristics, as research shows obesity discrimination still rife in UK workplaces

Workplace discrimination against those of “non-ideal weight” should be treated as seriously as racism and sexism, according to a leading employment judge who has called for a change in the law to bring the matter into line with other equality issues.

Employment judge Philip Rostant said a change in the law would be the only way to ensure that ‘fattism’ – the discrimination against people based on their weight – was taken seriously.

In a joint paper with Tamara Hervey, a professor of law at The University of Sheffield, the academics said: “People of non-ideal weight (overweight or severely underweight) are subjected to discrimination, in the workplace and elsewhere, based on attitudinal assumptions and negative inferences from their membership of a group, such as that they are insufficiently self-motivated to make good employees.”

Obese people were found to have greater difficulty getting jobs, were paid less than thinner colleagues and were at greater risk of losing their jobs once in a role.

A new law could outlaw abusive terms such as ‘fatty’, and the practice of refusing to employ or promote someone based on their weight.

In 2014, in the landmark case of Karsten Kaltoft v Billund Kommune, the ECJ ruled that if the obesity of a worker “hinders the full and effective participation in professional life on an equal basis with other workers… obesity can fall within the ‘concept’ of disability”.

At the time, legal experts warned that the ruling could have huge implications for employers, but Rostant and Hervey argue that current employment law still doesn’t go far enough to protect victims of discrimination.

“The Equality Act 2010 offers only a very tenuous route for protection, because the Act is based largely on a ‘medical model’ of disability,” the academics said in the paper.

“This situation leaves a gap in the law, which is remediable only by legislative reform.”

Age, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and disability are all protected characteristics listed under the Equality Act, and discrimination against people based on any of these factors is against the law. However, because overweight people are only protected if they can prove they are also disabled, they still fall victim to workplace discrimination.

Dr Sarah Jackson, professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London (UCL), said the omittance of weight, or obesity, from the list of protected characteristics “might send the message to people that weight discrimination is socially acceptable”.

In a separate joint study of more than 5,000 people, Jackson and her co-author, the late Jane Wardle, professor of clinical psychology and director of the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre at UCL, found that obese people not only face continued and rising discrimination at work, but ‘fattist’ taunts also lead to a drop in quality of life.

“Our results indicate that discriminatory experiences contribute to poorer psychological wellbeing in individuals with obesity, but there are currently no laws prohibiting weight discrimination,” Jackson said.

Professor Wardle added: “Everyone, including doctors, should stop blaming and shaming people for their weight, and offer support and, where appropriate, treatment.”


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