An Insight into a Recent Case Decided by the Court of Appeal in Terms of ‘Discriminatory Treatment’ in Employment

In a recent judgment delivered by the Court of Appeal (in its Inferior Jurisdiction) on the 16th June 2021, in the case of ‘Schembri Aften et vs. Playmobil Malta Limited’, the Court disagreed with the considerations of the Industrial Tribunal (‘the Tribunal’) and decided to overrule both its preliminary and final decisions, given on the 11th April 2017 and 23rd September 2020 respectively.

An overview of the facts of the case

This case concerned an allegation of discriminatory treatment by the respondent company, Playmobil Malta Ltd., which had allegedly offered a training opportunity to certain employees who were employed as ‘machine setters’ and were working in the Injection Department within the company, and had failed to offer such training opportunity to another group of employees, who were also employed by the company and who performed the same job, that of ‘machine setters’. The applicants claimed that by virtue of being offered this training opportunity, the machine setters working in the Injection Department at Playmobil had been promoted to the role of ‘Playmobil Technicians’ and were thus given a pay raise, which the applicants deemed to constitute a form of discriminatory treatment.

The conclusions by the Industrial Tribunal

In its preliminary decision given on the 11th April 2017, the Tribunal concluded that the respondent company, Playmobil Malta Ltd., had acted in a discriminatory manner towards the applicants on the basis of Article 26 of Chapter 452 of the Laws of Malta, the Employment and Industrial Relations Act (‘EIRA’), which includes provisions relating to the protection against discrimination related to employment. On the 23rd September 2020, the Tribunal reached its final decision, whereby it ordered the respondent company to pay the applicants a nominal sum of €2,000 by way of compensation.

The considerations and decision of the Court of Appeal

In its considerations, the Court of Appeal delved into the notion of discrimination and referred to Article 2 of the EIRA, which defines ‘discriminatory treatment’ as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction which is not justifiable in a democratic society including discrimination made on the basis of marital status, pregnancy or potential pregnancy, sex, colour, disability, religious conviction, political opinion or membership in a trade union or in an employers’ association”. The Court went on to refer to Article 26(1)(b) of the EIRA which deals with discriminatory treatment in terms of providing different conditions of employment to employees or any class of employees, as well as Article 26(2) o the EIRA which deals with different forms of discriminatory treatment which are envisaged at law.

In this regard, the Court noted that whilst the job title of the employees working in the Injection Department (i.e. that of ‘machine setters’) was the same as that of the applicants who were working in other departments in the company, the Court concluded that the work which was being performed by the machine setters working in the Injection Department could not be performed by other machine setters who were working in different departments, whilst on the other hand, those machine setters working in the Injection Department could in fact perform the work which was performed by the setters working in other departments. The Court also noted that the more complex and technical work which was performed by the machine setters working in the Injection Department was also reflected in the job descriptions of such employees, and was also confirmed through various testimonies of individuals from the respondent company.

Therefore, the Court proceeded to uphold the claims brought forward by the respondent company in relation to the wrong application of the law by the Tribunal when it declared that the company had acted in a discriminatory manner towards the applicants. In its decision, the Court decided to overturn and revoke the Tribunal’s decision in its entirety, thereby dismissing the appeal filed by the applicants and upholding the pleas submitted by the respondent company, concluding that the latter’s actions were not considered to constitute discriminatory treatment at law and were well in line with the company’s policies.

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