Freedom of religion, belief must be protected in workplace says UN expert

(Photo: United Nations Human Rights Facebook page)

United Nations human rights expert Heiner Bielefeldt has told the U.N. General Assembly that freedom to express one's religion or belief without discrimination should be protected in the employment area.

He urged all governments to take every appropriate measure to prevent and eliminate all forms of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief, while delivering a report on October 23.

"The management of religious or belief diversity in the workplace constitutes a major challenge for today's employment policy," he said delivering his latest report to the international body.

"An increasingly diverse and mobile global workforce, expanded manufacturing demands and new production schedules can lead to conflicts between professional and religious identities and duties," said Bielefeldt.

The Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief noted that limitations of the right to manifest a person's religion or belief in the workplace, if necessary, must be specific and narrowly defined.

That way they can comply with international human rights standards.

"Both public and private employment contracts can stipulate specific work-related obligations which may limit some manifestations of an employee's religion or belief," Bielefeldt said.

"However, they can never amount to a general waiver of this human right in the workplace," he stressed.

Bielefeldt is professor of Human Rights and Human Rights Politics at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg. From 2003 to 2009, he was director of Germany's National Human Rights Institution.

In his report, the expert explores the sources of religious intolerance and discrimination in the workplace, which can be varied.

They can include prejudices existing among employers, employees or customers, restrictive interpretations of 'corporate identity' or a general fear of religious diversity.


"Many people spend a large share of their daily lives in their workplace, in which they still face restrictions to exercise the right to freedom of religion or belief," the Special Rapporteur said.

He called on States for the establishment of effective anti-discrimination legislation and monitoring mechanisms that cover employment in public and private institutions.

The human rights expert urged governments to set positive examples of respect for religious diversity in their own employment policies within State institutions.

"Good practice in this area should serve as a model to be followed in the private sector and in other societal areas," he said.

He also called on employers "to foster an atmosphere of trustful and respectful communication."

This would "allow employees, including members of religious or belief minorities, to express their problems and discuss their needs openly, as a preliminary to detecting concealed forms of intolerance and instances or patterns of indirect discrimination."

Bielefeldt's report offers a number of practical recommendations, and puts forward the concept of "reasonable accommodation" as a tool.

This can put into context the principle of non-discrimination so that appropriate individual solutions for religious minorities can be found at the workplace, he said.

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