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English-only lawful if workplace reasons valid

English-only policy lawful if workplace reasons valid

Employers are being advised to take care how they introduce or enforce language policies in the workplace; asking people not to speak their own language or language of choice can affect their sense of identity and culture.

The Employers & Manufacturers Association (Northern) says if the reasons for adopting an English-only policy in the workplace are valid, for example to make sure instructions regarding safety and productivity are understood, it is unlikely they will be held to be unlawful.

The Human Rights Act 1993 makes it unlawful to discriminate against people because of their race, colour, national or ethnic origin in employment, accommodation, educational facilities, access to public places and vehicles, and the provision of goods and services.

"When people cannot understand what is being said around them they can become distrustful and suspicious, and employers often want to avoid circumstances that could lead to this," said Alasdair Thompson, EMA's chief executive.

"They may want to include in their employment agreements that staff are required to speak English only in the workplace including in the lunch room or cafeteria.

"Employees are protected by the Humans Rights legislation when a requirement, or condition imposed on everybody in a workplace, has the effect of treating a person or group of persons unfavourably because of their race, or national or ethnic origin

"If English must be spoken by all employees, those whose first language or language of choice is not English could be disadvantaged.

"Where there is a valid reason, such as the need for everyone in a workplace to give and understand instructions in the interests of safety or productivity, it is unlikely that requiring the use of a common language in the workplace would be unlawful.

"If there is no specified reason for the requirement, for example during lunch breaks from the workplace or in conversation of a social nature, non-English speakers could claim they have been disadvantaged.

"Workplace circumstances and the response required will vary from firm to firm, but the issue in general will demand sensitive and respectful responses by managers."

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