On 25 October 2016, the Ghent Employment Tribunal ordered a company to pay damages of €22,000 to a former employee who had lost her job while suffering from cancer. The case was reported by the Belgian press only in late December. The dismissal letter sent to the employee stated that her long periods of absence had compromised her ‘continuity of service’.
‘I did not receive any apologies, let alone a proper farewell. My colleagues were even told not to contact me at one point,’ explained Bjoke Carron to the Flemish daily newspaper De Morgen. Carron, who was only 42 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, was supported by Unia, an independent public institution which combats discrimination and promotes equal opportunities.
‘Everyone is aware that discrimination on the basis of gender, race or age is prohibited and punishable by law,’ explains Els Keytsman, Co-Director of Unia. ‘Yet people often forget that health-based discrimination is also prohibited. It is against the law to dismiss someone on grounds of illness.’
Unia decided to help Ms Carron to defend her rights in court after unsuccessful attempts to negotiate an amicable settlement with the employer.
In 2015, Unia opened 17 case files relating to health-based discrimination. Els Keytsman believes that they represent only the tip of the iceberg: ‘Many cases never make it onto our radar because the victims are too ill to summon up the strength needed to speak out about their situation.’
Unia has noted a growing trend among employers to dismiss employees for illness-related absence instead of giving careful consideration to arrangements which could allow them to continue working.
Marie-Anne Mengeot (Journalist)