R4m Damages for a Workplace Sexual Assault

“The stance adopted by the Municipality at the trial demonstrated a disturbing lack of appreciation of its legal obligation to have provided E[….] with a safe working environment.” (Extract from judgment below)

Our courts do not tolerate any form of sexual assault or harassment in the workplace and a recent High Court decision confirms the danger to both employees of engaging in this form of misconduct, and to employers of failing to address it.

The sexual assault and the damages claim
  • In 2009 a “vibrant 23 year old woman” employed by a municipality as a clerk was sexually assaulted by her immediate superior, a Corporate Services Manager.
  • The assault was described as follows: “As she looked up he bent down with his head over hers and, putting his mouth over hers, attempted to force his tongue into her mouth.She clenched her teeth and tried unsuccessfully to push him away.After a minute or so he desisted, leaving her with a mouthful of his saliva.She immediately wiped the saliva off her mouth. He then also tried to wipe her mouth with his hand but she knocked it away.” Importantly, the Court noted that that this was in no way just an attempt to “kiss” the victim; it was very far removed from a “kiss” and was instead a sexual assault.
  • The victim subsequently resigned from her job “after her employer had made her employment intolerable compelling her to resign” and then for a variety of reasons decided to sue for damages for unlawful dismissal in the High Court rather than claim for unfair constructive dismissal via the CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration). Both avenues are available to any victim of such misconduct, and many factors will determine the best choice in any particular case.
  • Thus began what proved to be the start of a long and gruelling saga, leading firstly to a 2016 High Court finding in the victim’s favour that her employer and the manager were both liable to her for “such damages as she may be able to prove she has suffered in consequence of the sexual assault upon her”.
  • Back to the High Court went the victim to prove her damages. She had, held the Court after hearing all the evidence, been “deeply traumatized, she suffered from post traumatic stress disorder requiring extensive psychotherapy and “the course of the life of the deeply traumatised 34 year old woman who testified at the trial on quantum in late July 2020 had been much changed as a result of the assault.”
The employer’s “supine approach of bovine resignation”
  • The Court hauled the employer over the coals as it “took no responsibility for its conduct and denied liability at the trial. At no stage did it apologize for the tremendous suffering it had caused E[…]. … It exhausted every avenue open to it to avoid having to compensate E[…] for the wrong which she had suffered at its hands.”
  • Although the manager was found guilty of gross misconduct at a disciplinary enquiry, his sanction was a two-week suspension without pay rather than dismissal, an outcome described by the Court as “mindboggling given the character of the offence, the circumstance that [the manager] had abused his position of authority by assaulting a female subordinate who was in a particularly vulnerable position in that she was a temporary employee at the time that the assault occurred. Furthermore [the manager] did not demonstrate any remorse, remaining defiant to the end. Where an employee has been found guilty of gross misconduct and fails to take the first step towards rehabilitation by acknowledging his wrongdoing, there can be little scope for corrective or progressive discipline.” (Also relevant – the manager had received a suspended sentence of imprisonment after the victim laid charges against him, and he was already on a final written warning for theft from his employer.)
  • The employer’s “approach of washing its hands of the matter, á la Pontius Pilate, fell woefully short of what was required of an employer in the circumstances. The Municipality abdicated its responsibilities to protect E[…] and adopted a supine approach of bovine resignation” (emphasis supplied).
  • There was much more from the Court in the same vein – the employer had, “through protracted litigation, made her wait so long for justice, thereby adding to her suffering …On a human level, the defence which was put up by the Municipality was devoid of introspection, humility or compassion … it had lengthened and intensified the trauma suffered by E[…] … there was no, as it were, corporate repentance … The Municipality was quick to defend the litigation and slow to listen to E[…]”.

The end result – the employer and the manager must “jointly and severally” pay to the victim a total of R3,998,955.02 in damages for loss of earnings, psychological/medical expenses, and general damages. They are also in for (doubtless substantial) legal costs, including the costs of four expert witnesses.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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Dismissed: The Butcher Who Went to Work With COVID-19

“The facts of this case are indeed extraordinary. They are indicative of the need for more to be done at both the workplace and in our communities, in ensuring that employers, employees, and the general populace are sensitised to the realities of this pandemic, and to further reinforce the obligations of employers and employees in the face of, or event of an exposure to COVID-19” (extract from judgment below)

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed both employers and their employees to a whole new slew of risks. One of the more serious is the danger of infected employees coming to work and by doing so endangering the lives of not just their colleagues, but also customers and anyone else unfortunate enough to come into contact with them.

A new Labour Court decision confirms that our courts will not hesitate to act decisively where employees disregard health and safety protocols.

The butcher who tested positive but went to work
  • An Assistant Butchery Manager employed by a national butchery business, despite testing positive for COVID-19, reported for duty for three days, walked around the workplace without a mask, and even hugged a colleague with a heart condition.
  • He was charged with gross misconduct and negligence, firstly for not disclosing that he had been tested for COVID-19 and was awaiting the results, and thereafter for endangering the lives of his colleagues by failing, after receiving a positive test result, to self-isolate, to follow the workplace health and safety protocols, and to adhere to social distancing.
  • The employer had constantly reminded all employees of its COVID-19 policies, procedures, rules, and protocols. Moreover the employee was a member of his workplace’s “Coronavirus Site Committee” responsible for putting up posters throughout the workplace, informing all employees what and what not to do in the event of exposure or even if they suspected that they may have been exposed to COVID-19, and the symptoms they must look out for.
  • Dismissed, the employee approached the CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration) which although finding him guilty held that the dismissal was substantively unfair and that the employee should instead be reinstated retrospectively, without back-pay, and a final written warning placed on his record.
  • On review to the Labour Court it upheld the dismissal as being substantively fair, commenting that “[his] conduct was not only irresponsible and reckless, but was also inconsiderate and nonchalant in the extreme. He had ignored all health and safety warnings, advice, protocols, policies and procedures put in place at the workplace related to COVID-19, of which he was fairly aware of given his status not only as a manager but also part of the ‘Coronavirus Site Committee’.”
  • He had acted dishonestly, had caused “monumental harm, anxiety and strain” to his co-employees and their immediate families, as well as to his employer’s operations, he had shown no contrition, and his conduct had rendered unsustainable the trust and working relationship with both his employer and his fellow employees.
The Court’s warning to employers

The Court also rapped the employer over the knuckles for allowing business to continue as usual in a deadly pandemic without social distancing, allowing “mask-less ‘huggers’” to walk around on the shop floor, despite “having all of these fancy COVID-19 policies, procedures and protocols in place”.

As the Court put it “…the facts of this case in my view clearly compels the need for serious introspection by the applicant and all other employers in the light of the above questions posed, in regard to whether existing health and safety measures and protocols in place are being taken seriously by everyone affected. It is one thing to have all the health and safety protocols in place and on paper. These are however meaningless if no one, including employers, takes them seriously.” (Emphasis supplied).

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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Employers: Beware the “Casual Worker” Myth!

Employees in South Africa enjoy strong protections under a raft of laws such as the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA), the Labour Relations Act (LRA) and the Employment Equity Act (EEA).

Failure to comply with these Acts, whilst perhaps tempting to many employers struggling financially in these hard times, is not only unfair to employees (many of whom are in equally dire straits), but also an extremely risky business from a legal perspective. The CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration) and our courts take a dim view of employers flouting these laws, and offenders will pay heavily for doing so.

So, what is a “casual worker”?

A commonly held and dangerous myth is that you don’t have to worry about these laws when employing “casual workers”. That is perhaps a hangover from the pre-1997 definition of “casual labourers” as those who worked for 3 days or less per week. 

However, that definition fell away with amendments to the BCEA in 1997, since when we have had no defined concept of “casual worker” or “casual employee”. What counts now is that employees who work for you for less than 24 hours per month are excluded from core BCEA protections – those relating to contracts, hours of work, overtime pay, leave, sick leave, termination and so on (the prohibitions against employment of children and forced labour still apply). 

There is nothing to stop you using terms like “casual employee” or “casual worker” but bear in mind that they have no legal effect – what counts is that anyone working for you for 24 hours or more per month, no matter how you refer to them, falls under the BCEA’s provisions.

What about independent contractors and excluded employees?

Turning now to anyone working for you for more than 24 hours per month (outside the strict ambit of this article perhaps but relevant for context and comparison) –

  • The BCEA’s protections are limited in the cases of certain employees, such as those earning over a specified threshold, senior management, some sales staff, employees of smaller businesses, specific employees like National Defence Force members and so on, with Ministerial “sectoral determinations” also applying in some sectors.
  • “Independent contractors” have no employee protections (they are explicitly excluded from the definitions of “employee” in the BCEA, the LRA and the EEA), with the vital qualification that they must genuinely be non-employees. As far as labour law considerations are concerned, there are presumptions to overcome, criteria to consider and requirements to meet, and you cannot get away with disguising an employer/employee relationship as an employer/contractor one (no matter what your contract says). A related but separate issue is that SARS will hold you liable to withhold PAYE unless the relationship meets its own specified criteria. This is a complex subject on its own, with many grey areas and pitfalls, so specific professional advice is essential in any doubt.
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Companies: Are Restraints of Trade Valid in a Time of Covid?

“For him to be forced out of a career of choice to start working in a different field at a time when many businesses are closing down, retrenchments and lay-offs being commonplace and individual[s] doing everything possible to survive and cope with the health and economic devastating effects of the covid 19 pandemic, is plainly unreasonable and contrary to public policy and constitutional values” (extract from judgment below)

Consider this unhappy (but not unlikely) scenario: For whatever reason, you part ways with your fellow director/shareholder (or perhaps a key employee), who goes off immediately to join (or found) the opposition. 

Now you have a major problem – he/she was privy to all your trade secrets and confidential information and they are now being used to compete against you. Your business could be crippled.

Using the time-tested restraint of trade clause

An effective and time-tested way of protecting your business from such a risk is to insist on all directors, shareholders and key employees signing restraint of trade agreements from the start. Such restraints are usually included as clauses in employment contracts and/or (less commonly) in shareholder agreements. 

However, it is vital to word the restraint clause correctly if it is to stand up to legal scrutiny.  Although our law has long recognised the right of businesses to enforce this type of contract so as to protect their “proprietary and protectable interests”, and although in general we are held by the law to the agreements that we conclude, there is always a balance struck with the employee’s constitutional rights to be economically active and to earn a living.

As the High Court put it recently: “It is settled law that restraints of trade are valid and binding and, as a matter of principle, enforceable unless, and to the extent that, they are contrary to public policy because they impose an unreasonable restriction on the former employee’s freedom to trade or to work. It is also settled that the onus of establishing that the restraint of trade is unreasonable falls on the former employee.”

A common mistake – going “too wide”

The most common mistake businesses make is to word the restraint of trade too widely (in one or more of type of activity, geographical area or time period). No matter how tempting it may be to do so, that is courting disaster. The wider the clause is, the greater the chances of a court holding it either totally invalid or only partially enforceable. Rather word your clauses tightly and defensibly.

Two recent High Court decisions illustrate both this principle, and the potential impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on our courts’ approach to the questions of reasonableness and time periods.

The impact of the pandemic on the “reasonableness” test
  • A director, shareholder and employee of a company specialising in media and advertising solutions resigned as both director and employee after a breakdown in relations, the company owing him R1.2m in short-paid salary. He however retained his shareholding. 
  • He was subject to restraints of trade (in both his employment and shareholder agreements) which prohibited him from working for a competitor, and from sharing confidential information and trade secrets with them, for 18 months in any of 29 African countries.
  • He nevertheless joined a direct competitor (active in 2 of the 29 African countries) and acted in breach of the restraint by contacting customers and business associates. When sued in the High Court for enforcement of the restraint clauses, his main defence was that they were unreasonable and prevented him from earning a living.
  • The Court confirmed the need to consider all the relevant circumstances, not only at the time a restraint is entered into, but also at the time that the business tries to enforce its restraint. In this case, the company’s attempts at enforcement encompassed the period March to July 2020 – a time of strict lockdowns and economic turmoil.
  • The upshot – the Court rejected the company’s suggestion that the ex-director could remain economically active in another field for which he was qualified, commenting: “For him to be forced out of a career of choice to start working in a different field at a time when many businesses are closing down, retrenchments and lay-offs being commonplace and individual[s] doing everything possible to survive and cope with the health and economic devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, is plainly unreasonable and contrary to public policy and constitutional values”. The restraints were rejected as unenforceable.
The impact of the pandemic on time periods 

Another recent High Court decision saw the Court reducing a 2-year restraint, on sales employees who resigned in March and April 2020 respectively, to 14 months. 

In doing so the Court took what it considered to be a reasonable base period in the circumstances of 12 months and added 2 months “to compensate for the lockdown period”, also commenting that “…I am aware that our society is living in strange times. The COVID-19 pandemic has played havoc with, inter alia, our economy. Businesses have been prevented from operating and the ability of the applicants to appoint and train new salespersons will undoubtedly have been blunted by the state of the economy. This is of some relevance when considering the length of the period of restraint…”.  

So – are restraints of trade valid in times of pandemic and upheaval?

Neither decision means that restraints are necessarily unenforceable or only partially enforceable during times of economic turmoil and high unemployment. Each case will be decided on its own merits, but in assessing whether your own restraint clauses will be considered reasonable and enforceable, they are clearly factors to be borne in mind.

Can an Employee Who Refuses Vaccination be Fired?

“This virus is unprecedented in our lifetime and requires an unprecedented response” (António Guterres, UN Secretary-General)

Most of us will celebrate the day we are offered a COVID-19 vaccination, but here in South Africa as overseas it seems inevitable that a significant number of people will refuse to be vaccinated. The reasons given for this stance have been many and varied, some mainstream and reasonable, others less so.

Perhaps some of those refusing will reconsider if and when they find they are denied opportunities available to those vaccinated – travel restrictions spring to mind but another example could be establishments like hotels and restaurants getting sticky on the issue if customer demand for safety grows.

A knotty problem for employers

Nevertheless, there will still be many “refusers” – all convinced that they are being entirely reasonable in refusing – and they could pose a knotty problem for you as an employer. On the one hand you have both legal and moral obligations to keep your workplace as safe as possible, but on the other hand refusers have their own strong legal and moral rights, both as citizens and as employees. For example, health, bodily integrity and privacy concerns, and concerns related to religious and cultural beliefs, raise issues of constitutional protection.

It boils down to a series of competing questions. Can you fire employees for refusing vaccination? Can your vaccinated employees and/or health officials hold you accountable for allowing unvaccinated employees into the workplace? Can employees who are vaccinated at your behest hold you liable if they suffer adverse reactions or health problems?

Between a rock and a hard place…

That all leaves employers walking a tightrope between competing sets of risks and employee rights, with the added complication of statutory requirements to provide a safe working environment. 

There is unfortunately no clarity on what line our courts will take when addressing the many disputes that will inevitably arise, but amidst all the speculation there does at least appear to be broad consensus that a case-by-case approach is probably the safest and the fairest way to proceed. 

That suggests that the most prudent course, at least until there is some clarity from the courts, is to tread carefully and lightly, and to act strictly in line with the general principles of our employment laws. 

Some general principles to bear in mind
  • Government has made it clear that despite our unprecedented National State of Disaster, vaccination is voluntary. It will try to persuade us to get the jabs, but it won’t force us to. So, expect no intervention from that source other than on the educational side – see for example “COVID-19 Coronavirus vaccine myths and facts” on the Government Information website. 
  • The fundamental employment law principle of fairness in both procedure and reasons for dismissal will remain critical to the outcome of any legal dispute.
  • Beware “automatically unfair dismissal” in the form of discrimination on any “arbitrary ground”, specifically including grounds such as “…age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, political opinion, culture…” – any or all of which might underlie an employee’s objections to vaccination. 
  • Amongst other constitutional protections we all have the right to “bodily … integrity” so it is vital to adequately address individual health concerns, such as those around adverse reactions and side-effects. Ongoing reports of some vaccines being paused from use internationally (at date of writing, said to be an over-reaction by the countries in question) will contribute to these concerns, and the cautious will need reassurance.
  • As always, and without losing sight of the need to address each individual employee’s concerns on a case-by-case basis, aim for agreement and consensus in the workplace via consultation. A full risk assessment specific to your workplace, and the educational resources mentioned above, could be invaluable here. 
  • Set a workplace policy on vaccination – contravention of a fair and reasonable policy will lay the groundwork for any charge of misconduct. Decide whether a flexible policy would suffice or whether mandatory vaccination is essential. Consider every possibility and circumstance – for example, can concerned staff be allowed to work remotely? Would employee fears be alleviated by access to specific medical advice? Do you operate in a sector (health care or retirement perhaps) where vaccination will be considered essential? And so on…

Every business will have its own particular business activities, needs and employees. So most importantly, take advice specific to your workplace!

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

Domestic Workers and Employers: The New Injury and Illness Cover Explained

“Domestic employees” are now covered under the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act (COIDA) and will now be entitled for compensation from the Compensation Fund in the event they are injured or contract diseases while on duty.

The new benefits

Note: The benefits set out below are recorded in summary only and awards are subject to conditions and to limits; so seek specific professional advice in need. 

Compensation payable to a qualifying employee by the Fund

Temporary Total Disablement (TTD) 

This is for an employee booked off for 4 days or more by a doctor to recuperate, maximum 24 months

Permanent disablement lump sum    

A permanent disablement lump sum is paid to an employee who has received a final medical report from the treating doctor indicating that the employee has reached maximum medical improvement. The permanent disablement should be 1 – 30% disablement for the Compensation Fund to pay this benefit. 

Permanent disablement pension   

The permanent disablement pension is paid to an employee who has received a final medical report from the treating doctor indicating that the employee has reached maximum medical improvement. The permanent disablement should be 31 – 100% disablement for the Compensation Fund to pay this benefit. 

Compensation payable to dependants of employees who died as a result of injury on duty or occupational disease

Under this heading there is cover for some funeral expenses, a widow’s lump sum award, a widow’s pension award, a child pension award, a partial or wholly dependency award payable to parents or siblings in the absence of a surviving spouse or child.

Orthotics and Rehabilitation 

Qualifying applicants can claim for youth bursaries, a “Return to Work” programme, “assistive devices” like wheelchairs and prosthetics, and rehabilitation and re-integration programmes.

Medical benefits

Medical benefits/claims and chronic medication are provided for in this section.

Employers – you must now register, submit annual returns, and pay annual tariffs

All employers of domestic employees are now obliged to register as employers with the Compensation Fund and to submit the necessary returns. You will be assessed and billed annually. To calculate how much your annual tariff payment will be, take the employee’s annual salary, divide it by 100 and multiply it by the current “assessment rate” applicable to domestic employees (1.04) – e.g. at a monthly salary of R4,500 the calculation is: R4,500 x 12 / 100 = R540 x 1.04 = R561-60 for the year. 

Although there is reportedly no deadline for registration set at the moment, keep an eye on the media as this is bound to change. 

For more detail, download the Department of Employment and Labour’s “Notice on The Registration of Domestic Worker Employers in Terms of Section 80 of The Compensation for Occupational Injuries And Disease Act As Amended” from GPW Online. See page 9 for the registration procedure and “Industry Classification” (get this right, high-risk industry employers pay a lot more!), page 10 for the ROE (Return of Earnings) and assessment procedures (plus how to register online) and page 11 for the claims submission process. The necessary forms are on pages 12 onwards. 

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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Can Employees Resign to Dodge Disciplinary Hearings?

“…an employee who gives short notice in violation of the contract … may be obliged to serve out the notice period” (Quoted in the judgment below)

It’s an age-old workplace dodge – threatened with a disciplinary hearing and fearing a guilty verdict, an employee resigns with immediate effect and walks out the door with a defiant “Well that’s it, you just lost your right to discipline me. See you around, loser”. 

No longer! Our courts have dealt with this issue often in the past in various guises and with conflicting outcomes. Fortunately, a new Labour Appeal Court (LAC) decision has finally settled the matter.

The bank employee and the fraudulent cheque charge
  • A bank employee was given notice to attend a disciplinary hearing on a charge of misconduct after a R30,000 cheque was cashed without proper procedures being followed (the cheque was later found to have been fraudulent, and the bank lost R30k). 
  • She resigned “with immediate effect”, presumably fearing a guilty verdict and the risk of her name being put onto the Banking Association of South Africa’s REDS (Register for Employees Dishonesty System) database.
  • The bank however insisted that she serve the four-week notice period in her employment contract and convened a disciplinary enquiry within the notice period.
  • The employee and her attorney arrived at the enquiry to argue that her immediate resignation had ended the employment relationship and that the enquiry could not therefore continue. When the chairman rejected this argument, she left the enquiry to proceed in her absence.
  • Found guilty of misconduct and summarily dismissed, the employee approached the Labour Court which agreed that the resignation had terminated the employment. It accordingly ruled the dismissal null and void. 
  • On appeal however the LAC found that the employer had been entitled to enforce the contractual four-week notice provision, that the employment relationship therefore still existed at the time of the hearing, and that the dismissal was accordingly valid.
Employers: Be clear and be quick!
  • You can choose to enforce the notice period provision, or you can choose to waive it. If you are found to have waived it, the employment relationship will have ended immediately. To avoid any risk of that, make it crystal clear to the employee that you are enforcing the notice period.
  • Secondly, don’t drag your feet on holding the disciplinary enquiry – you must act before the notice period expires and the employment relationship ends.
What if there is no notice period in your employment contract?

In that case, said the Court, the notice periods in the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA) would apply –

“(a) one week, if the employee has been employed for six months or less;
(b) two weeks, if the employee has been employed for more than six months but not more than one year;
(c) four weeks, if the employee

(i) has been employed for one year or more; or

(ii) is a farm worker or domestic worker who has been employed for more than six months.”

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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New National Minimum Wage and Earnings Thresholds From 1 March 2021

(N.B. The increases highlighted below are extracted from the Employment and Labour Minister’s announcement of 9 February 2021, and emphasis has been supplied where helpful in enabling quick identification of your employment sector. Comment is in square brackets)

  • “The National Minimum Wage (NMW) for each ordinary hour worked has been increased from R20,76 to R21,69 per hour [a 4.5% increase] for the year 2021 with effect from 1 March 2021.

    It is illegal and an unfair labour practice for an employer to unilaterally alter hours of work or other conditions of employment in implementing the NMW. The NMW is the amount payable for the ordinary hours of work and does not include payment of allowances (such as transport, tools, food or accommodation) payments in kind (board or lodging), tips, bonuses and gifts.
  • Following a transitional phase, the farm worker sector has been aligned with the NMW rate of R21,69 per hour [a 16% increase]. 
  • The domestic workers sector will be entitled to R19,09 per hour [a 23% increase] and could be expected to be aligned with the NMW when the next review is considered [i.e. 2022]. [Use the Living Wage calculator to check that you are paying your domestic worker enough to cover a household’s “minimal need”].
  • In line with the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (BCEA), the increase in the NMW will mean that wages prescribed in the sectoral determinations that were higher than the NMW at its promulgation, must be increased proportionally to the adjustment of the national minimum wage. Therefore, the Contract Cleaning; and Wholesale and Retail Sector will also have their wages upwardly adjusted by 4,5 percent.
  • In another development, the Minister has also, in terms of the BCEA earnings threshold, revised the rate from R205 433.30 to R211 596.30. Chapter 2 of the Act deals with the regulation of working time, limit on the duration of an employee’s working week and to prescribe a rate at which an employee should be paid to work outside normal working hours among others.
  • Employees that earn in excess of this rate per annum are excluded from sections 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17(2) and 18(3) of this Act from 01 March 2021. These sections protect vulnerable employees and regulate amongst others, hours of work, overtime, compressed working time, average hours of work, meals interval, daily and weekly rest period, pay for work on Sundays, night work, and work on public holidays.”

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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Cannabis in the Workplace: Can You Dismiss?

A recent CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration) ruling, in which an employee’s dismissal for smoking cannabis before work was set aside and he was re-instated, has garnered a lot of media attention.

Unfortunately, some of the resultant articles and headlines may have given the inaccurate impression that employees are now free to report for duty under the influence of the intoxicant. In fact, although the employee in question was indeed re-instated, he was still held to be in the wrong, and sanctioned with denial of back pay and a 12-month final written warning. 

Moreover, a previous (2018) CCMA ruling had confirmed the dismissal of employees in broadly similar circumstances. 

It seems that each case will be treated on its own merits so let’s compare the facts in these two matters –

2018: Dismissal upheld
  • Employees in a particularly dangerous workplace environment (involving heavy machinery, vehicles, and timber and hence a risk of fatality), had a zero-tolerance policy when it came to workplace safety and substance abuse. 
  • All employees were tested for cannabis use and four who tested positive were dismissed after admitting that they had smoked the drug at home. They knew of the zero-tolerance policy and of the dismissal risk for contravening it.
  • Their dismissals were upheld by the CCMA as being an appropriate sanction in the circumstances. 
2020: Dismissal too harsh
  • An employer’s Code of Conduct and Discipline prohibited anyone from working under the influence of alcohol or drugs, a policy strictly enforced as a compliance issue under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. The Code recommended dismissal for even a first offence.
  • An employee (a “picker” in a cosmetics and fragrance business) arrived late for work with red and watery eyes, tested positive for cannabis use and admitted having smoked a “zol” (cannabis cigarette) some two hours before reporting for work.
  • After a disciplinary hearing he was dismissed, but the CCMA re-instated him on the basis that although he had tested positive for cannabis there was no evidence that his ability to perform his work had been affected. Indeed, his employer had allowed him to remain at work that day, albeit in a “safe” environment. “The problem with a charge of being under the influence of drugs” said the Commissioner “is that there has not been any scientific method of determining whether a person is under the influence of the drug such that there is an impairment in their performance.”
  • “In the circumstances dismissal was too harsh and was not an appropriate sanction”. As mentioned above the employee was not let off the hook but his sanction was reduced from dismissal to loss of back pay and a final written warning. This on the basis that he was aware of the policy prohibiting the use of drugs on duty and “It was irresponsible to take a substance that may have the ability to impair his mental or physical abilities.”

Clearly every case will be different, but at the very least employers should have in place workplace policies appropriate to their particular business conditions and requirements.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

© LawDotNews

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Our Brave New World: Using Zoom for Retrenchment Consultations

“O brave new world” (Shakespeare)

The COVID-19 pandemic will doubtless lead to many new developments on the legal front.

For example, with widespread employee retrenchment now an unfortunate reality in our struggling economy, all employers, employees and trade unions should know of an important new Labour Court decision validating the use of remote conferencing for the retrenchment consultation process. 

The consultation process, rudely interrupted
  • An employer decided in January 2020 that it needed to restructure its business operations, which prompted it to contemplate dismissal of employees based on operational requirements. 
  • The next step in terms of the Labour Relations Act was to enter into a meaningful consultation process with employees and/or their representatives, aimed at discussing and seeking consensus on possible alternatives to retrenchment, minimizing dismissals, severance pay etc. 
  • This being a large scale retrenchment proposal the employer issued a formal notice inviting consultation and requested facilitation of the consultation process. A facilitator was appointed and several physical meetings were held. 
  • Before the final consultation meeting could be held however the process was rudely interrupted by the declaration of a National State of Disaster and the consequent lockdown and restrictions on gatherings. 
  • The Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) proposed methods by which the process might continue, including usage of Zoom, but the trade union in question refused to participate via Zoom and the employer proceeded with the meeting in its absence. 
  • When the employer then issued notices of retrenchment, the union applied urgently to the Labour Court to declare the process procedurally unfair.
Our “new normal”

“With the advent of the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the “new normal” presented itself” (extract from Labour Court judgment)

Commenting on the irony of the union complaining about “the efficacy and reliability” of Zoom whilst using it to make its own urgent application to court, and noting that the facilitator, with “powers to make a final and binding ruling on procedure”, was not averse to using Zoom for the meeting, the Court found that the union had refused to participate in the consultation process through no fault of the employer’s. 

As the Court put it: “With the new normal – lockdown period during Covid-19 pandemic – zoom is the appropriate form in which meetings can take place. What is involved in this period is the health and safety issue … It is a necessary tool to ensure that restrictions like social distancing as a measure to avoid the spread of the virus are observed.”

Accordingly there was no procedural unfairness and the union’s application was dismissed. 

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