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26th Sep 2020

Obesity now considered a disability in EU law

  • (Photo: Alfonso Salgueiro)

EU judges in Luxembourg on Thursday (18 December) ruled obesity can be considered a disability whenever it impacts on work performance.

The judgment is meant to protect severely overweight employees - classified as having a body mass index (BMI) of more than 30 - from job-related discrimination.

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The case stems from a 2010 case in Denmark where a 160kg child minder was sacked by a Danish municipality for being too large after 15 years on the job.

But his former employers dispute the account.

They say he was fired because there was no longer enough work to justify his position, noting that they had also paid the man to attend a gym for three months.

The plaintiff was the only one among more than 130 child minders employed by the local council to lose his post.

While the court ruled in favour of classing obesity as a disability in certain cases, it noted that it is now up to Denmark's national court to decide if the plaintiff falls within the scope.

The case went to European Court of Justice after the Danish counterpart asked for clarification in respect to the EU’s equal treatment in employment directive and the charter of fundamental rights.

The EU directive lists a number of anti-discrimination measures to protect against employer abuse for things like disability, but makes no explicit reference to obesity.

The court’s advocate general over the summer in an opinion on the case said obesity could be described as a disability if it “has reached such a degree that it plainly hinders participation in professional life”.

The court’s decision on Thursday may have implications for employers to make special arrangements to meet the needs of those suffering from the health condition.

Vytenis Andriukaitis, the EU commissioner for health, earlier this month noted that over half of all EU adults are now either overweight or obese.

"Obesity, which presents even greater health risks than being overweight, currently affects one in six adult (16.7%) in the EU, an increase from one in eight a decade ago, with considerable variations between countries," he said.

Figures by an OECD report out in July places Hungary, followed by the United Kingdom and Ireland, with the highest rates of obesity in the EU.

Obesity rates are on a progressive climb in other member states like Spain and France.

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