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Helsinki headscarf ruling could have broad impact

A professor of labour law says that an anti-discrimination ruling on Monday could help prevent abuses at other workplaces in Finland.

Image: Vihreät

For the first time, Helsinki District Court ruled on a case of discrimination based on religious attire. On Monday it fined two managers of a Helsinki clothing store for dismissing an employee over wearing a headscarf.

“Even if there are image reasons that lie behind it, an employer should be prepared that this kind of situation is going to come up,” says Seppo Koskinen, a professor of labour law at Turku University.

Seppo Koskinen Image: YLE

Faith-based attire – including headscarves and turbans – has aroused debate and legal disputes around Europe. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that employers cannot ban such symbols on the basis of corporate image – which is how the Helsinki clothing shop rationalised its dismissal of the Muslim worker. She'd been hired on a one-month contract but was fired on her first day when she showed up wearing a headscarf.

The issue has come up in other cities, such as Vantaa where Sikh bus driver Gill Sukhdarshan Singh in February won the right to wear his turban on the job.

Changing demographics, new uniforms

Meanwhile some women from Muslim backgrounds feel that headscarves are being used as an excuse not to hire them, says Roda Hassan, a Turku city councillor who works as an interpreter and translator.

“Sometimes people imagine that immigrant women, particularly Muslim women, don't want to work; or that they're forbidden to do so by their husbands or their religion. But this is not true. These women want to work but society discriminates against them,” she asserts.

Some employers have begun to adjust to Finland's changing demographics. For instance the retail chain HOK Elanto and the Helsinki healthcare system offer small scarves as part of work uniforms.

“Those who work in hospitals have their own outfit that include a separate small scarf. It doesn’t interfere with their work,” notes Hassan.

Koskinen expects such options to become more common in Finland.

“For instance, in Sweden, a police officer can wear a scarf or a Jewish kipa,” he points out. “We may still have a hard time understanding this liberal approach. But it works in Sweden, so why not here?”

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