Legal protections for the overweight

Until relatively recently, merit had to be, at least in theory, the primary consideration in corporate hiring and promotion. Then, to repair some historical wrongs, some ‘protected categories’ were created – especially in Anglo-Saxon countries – which must be favored in hiring and protected from dismissal. The phenomenon, initially born out of racial issues, is more evident in the United States, Canada and Great Britain. The European Union, perhaps due to its demographic composition, has been less active in the field.

There was then a real boom in these initiatives. At a political level they were liked, also because – perhaps cynically – on the one hand they show ‘social activism’ and on the other they are a useful mechanism for expanding the electoral base. Thus, by now the categories subject to this type of special protection include – in Canada, for example – cases of discrimination on the basis of race or color, national or ethnic origin, religion, age, gender, marital status, genetic characteristics, physical and, in some circumstances, previous felony convictions.

The situation is even more complicated in the United States, where a sort of limited sovereignty of individual states allows them to legislate on the matter. In fact, a few years ago the State of Michigan – in the north-central part of the country – introduced extensive protections for the ‘overweight’ category – overweight people – eliminating the possibility for an employer to discriminate against the category, for example, firing an employee for becoming so obese that it interferes with his or her ability to do work.

Now, since data from the US government indicate that the proportion of overweight – or frankly obese – American adults far exceeds 70%, it is not surprising that interest in the legislation on the matter is growing. Similar laws have been enacted in a number of major cities, including Washington D.C. and San Francisco. Even New York City passed a local law a few weeks ago creating the protected category of overweight.

The New York City Council’s move has thrown into panic many industries in the city where the physical appearance of employees is an important aspect of the business – such as those in fashion and entertainment or even gym and ‘fitness center’ operators, as well as the clinics themselves which treat the problems of obesity. Not to mention, of course, the companies that wash the windows of skyscrapers…

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