Is refusing to work sleeveless as a pharmacy assistant grounds for dismissal?

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It is always challenging when workplace dress codes conflict with religious rules. Legally, which one holds more weight? Is it the right to religious expression or the employer’s right to set appearance standards? A judge ruled on a case involving a Muslim woman who refused to wear short sleeves while working as a pharmacy assistant.

Is refusing to work sleeveless as a pharmacy assistant grounds for dismissal?
Photo: National Cancer Institute – Unsplash

sWhy work sleeveless as a pharmacy assistant?

The fifty-year-old woman worked as an assistant in a Dutch hospital pharmacy. Due to her Islamic faith, she had been covering her forearms since her employment began in 2013. The hospital had no issue with this.

However, in 2020, the Health Care Inspectorate introduced stricter rules. As a result, pharmacy assistants were required to work with bare forearms. The reason for this was that long sleeves could transmit infections to patients more easily. Additionally, it was easier to wash both hands and arms properly with bare forearms.

Since pharmacy assistants had to work not only behind the counter but also in the hospital itself, short sleeves became a requirement. Due to the new rules, the hospital lost at least six Islamic pharmacy assistants. One woman refused to comply with the new rule due to her faith but also did not want to resign.

The hospital internally sought a new position where the woman could wear long sleeves. She was offered roles such as an administrative assistant and a secretary. Initially, the woman, who had worked as a pharmacy assistant for twenty-five years, agreed to cooperate. However, she later decided to stop.

Is refusing to work sleeveless as a pharmacy assistant grounds for dismissal?

To dismiss the woman, the hospital went to court. The hospital also argued that the former employee was not entitled to severance pay because she ultimately did not cooperate with relocation efforts.

During the trial, the woman argued that the hospital had made an unlawful distinction based on religion. She also claimed that it was possible to perform her job in an adjusted manner. She proposed working from home or only behind the counter and no longer in the hospital itself. Ans she insisted on not having bare forearms at work because her faith did not permit this in the presence of men.

The judge ruled that infection prevention, as the measure is called, was a legitimate reason for the employer to require work with bare forearms. On the other hand, the judge found that the woman could not be blamed for refusing this due to her religious beliefs. Moreover, she had not misled the hospital by initially cooperating with the relocation process and later stopping.

Therefore, the hospital must still pay the woman a severance package of 8,534 euros.

Who has which rights?

I always find such court cases incredibly interesting. This is mainly because the outcomes are not always predictable. Sometimes the employer’s rights prevail, and sometimes the right to freedom of religion takes precedence. Regardless of the court’s decision, organizations do not always follow these rulings.

The headscarf policy is a good example. The European Court ruled in July 2021 that employers may ban headscarves at work. However, the company must have a valid reason for this. A drugstore that aimed to project neutrality and therefore banned headscarves was supported by the court. The same applies to law enforcement officers in the Netherlands. According to current rules, they are not allowed to wear headscarves either.

On the other hand, there is increasing resistance to this ban. For example, the city of Utrecht decided at the end of 2021 to allow headscarves and yarmulkes for law enforcement officers, even though it is technically not permitted. This is not the first time an organization has opposed court rules. In 2017, the Amsterdam police were on the verge of allowing headscarves for officers. Due to the significant controversy that arose, they decided to abandon the idea.

Nowadays, there are even organizations that create headscarves as part of the company uniform. For instance, Muslim women in New Zealand receive a special blue headscarf when they join the police force.

I am curious to see how this will evolve in the coming years…

Best regards,


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