By Anita Mulholland

THE Extinction Rebellion movement may have deep roots in London, but it is moving closer and closer to home, with Shell’s headquarters in Aberdeen one of its more recent targets.

It is one of the most influential movements of our time, with a diverse range of people taking part in acts of civil protest, from students and retirees to teachers, doctors, management consultants – almost every profession you can think of – and while some employers are happy to permit their staff to campaign during working hours, others have found it harder to accommodate the impact of these absences.

As we’ve seen recently, what is classed as a philosophical belief and therefore protected by the Equality Act 2010 has been subject to much debate; with the Employment Tribunal in the widely reported case of Casamitjana v League Against Cruel Sports tribunal upholding ethical veganism as a protected characteristic.

The Equality Act 2010 is designed to protect individuals against discrimination in the workplace on the grounds of their religious or philosophical beliefs, as long as they are genuinely held and substantially more than just a view or opinion. But where does this leave the employers of the thousands of employees who take time off work to lend their voices to the Extinction Rebellion movement?

Workers and employees do not have the right to take paid or unpaid leave whenever they want, as it is subject to an employer’s reasonable consent, and an organisation may reject a leave request if it considers, for example, that the absence would interfere with the daily running of its business.

This creates a grey area for staff and employers and has established a debate over how an employee’s right to act on their philosophical views should be weighed against the rights of an employer under contract law.

The likelihood of Extinction Rebellion members being protected by the Equality Act after a few protests is small, unless it can be shown that the belief is cogent and more than a view or opinion – essentially, a way of life.

With that being said, employers should be mindful of discrimination when dealing with a member of staff who wants to attend a protest, particularly if they wish to pursue disciplinary action.

Employers also have an obligation to those who aren’t taking part in protests but are caught up in the disruption. If a member of staff is unable to arrive at the office as a result of a road blockage, for example, companies must decide if staff are still entitled to pay in the event of them being unable to carry out their regular duties, whether there are any health and safety issues to be considered, and what steps should be taken to protect workers who are subject to harassment by protestors.

Extinction Rebellion has been described as the movement of a generation, and it’s not hard to see why. It has touched thousands of lives in one way or another and it continues to bring together a diverse group of people under the same banner of shared beliefs. The movement appears to be here to stay and so employers will need to carefully consider whether they should adopt a more flexible approach to individual acts of activism.

Anita Mulholland is Associate for Employment Law at Addleshaw Goddard