Weight discrimination is rife in Australian workplaces, with studies showing that overweight people are less likely to be hired, are lower paid, have fewer opportunities and are often bullied – and it’s women who fare the worst.
The problem is so bad in the United States, that Massachusetts is set to become the second state to add ‘weight’ to its list of protected attributes, leading to calls for similar changes to be made here in Australia.
More than one in four Aussies obese
According to the Heart Foundation, more than one in four adult Australians are obese.
This represents almost five million Australians aged 18 and over with a body mass index (BMI) of 30.0kg/m2 or more.
“Obesity is a major problem here in Australia, and it’s growing, and no one is going to get thinner by being punished or fat shamed or being treated unfairly, so maybe it’s time we had a look at our discrimination laws here too,” Miles Heffernan from Discrimination Claims said.
What the law currently says
In Queensland, physical size is not a protected attribute under that state’s discrimination laws, which means workers can be legally fired, or demoted, or refused a job because of their weight – and they often are.
The only exception to this could be if a person’s weight is caused by a medical condition – in that case, it could then be considered impairment discrimination.
According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, obesity can be covered by the definition of disability in the federal Disability Discrimination Act.
The law defines a ‘loss of functioning of a person’s body or part of the body’ as a disability.
Therefore, a person whose weight impairs his or her functioning would be covered.
It is against the law to discriminate against a person because of their disability.
Overweight workers report discrimination
One study of employment discrimination found the more overweight a person is, the more the likely they are to report discrimination in the workplace.
Overweight workers were 12 times more likely, obese respondents were 37 times more likely, and severely obese respondents were 100 times more likely than normal weight respondents to report employment discrimination.
Women are also 16 times more likely to report weight related employment discrimination than men.
Companies demand their workers lose weight
Pakistan International Airlines recently ordered overweight cabin crew to lose weight or be grounded.
According to a memo issued to around 1,800 staff, any crew member found to be more than 13 kg over the weight limit from January 31 would not be allowed to fly.
“No one would like to have shabby crew in the aircraft,” a spokesperson said.
In 2008, waitresses working at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City said they had their weight “obsessively monitored” by management, and were told that they would be suspended if they gained 7 per cent more weight than they had when they were hired.
A number of the waitresses sued the casino, but the case was thrown out, because the state’s law was silent about weight discrimination.
In 2012, a hospital in Texas imposed strict BMI limits on employees – 35, in the obese range was the cutoff.
Management said the weight rule was about meeting patients’ expectations of what a health-care provider should be like.
The proposed law change in Massachusetts
Massachusetts politicians have introduced a bill that would make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of weight.
It’s very concise, simply adding “weight” (and “height”) to the list of protected categories in existing anti-discrimination law, alongside race, age, sexuality and disability.
There’s strong backing for laws banning weight discrimination from doctors, health professionals and legal scholars – and the majority of the public.
According to a study by the University of Connecticut, from 2010 to 2015, support for such provisions increased from 73 percent to 79 percent, in a representative sample of adults nationally.
Skeptics argue that unlike race or age or gender, weight is largely under the control of the individual — ignoring genetic and environmental factors, prominent contributors to obesity.
If you have experienced discrimination, including on the basis of an obesity-related medical condition, you may be entitled to compensation.
For specialist help and advice, please call our team at Discrimination Claims today on
1300 853 837
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