Employment law update – Evidence relating to the trust relationship

August 1st, 2019

In Autozone v Dispute Resolution Centre of Motor Industry and Others [2019] JOL 41073 (LAC), the applicant, who was employed by Autozone as a driver, was instructed to recruit casual labour to clean up waste and rubble at an Autozone store. The applicant recruited three casual workers, each of whom would be paid R 50 for the task. The applicant, however, requested R 180 from the cashier of the store, paid each worker R 50, and withheld the additional R 30. Later, the applicant explained that he had acted on his own initiative to pay the casual workers more and had withheld the R 30 until the task was complete. The applicant was dismissed for dishonesty relating to the misappropriation of petty cash.

The applicant challenged the fairness of his dismissal and the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) subsequently found his dismissal to have been substantively fair. Unsatisfied with the CCMA’s finding, the applicant took the ruling on review to the Labour Court (LC). Without making an explicit finding in that regard, the LC accepted the misconduct to have been proven. However, it held that the test was whether the trust relationship between the applicant and Autozone had been breached to the extent that the employment relationship had become intolerable.

The LC concluded that there was no evidence that showed how the conduct for which the applicant was found guilty impacted on the trust relationship between the parties. In the absence of such evidence, the arbitrator ought to have held that the dismissal was unfair. The LC accordingly set aside the award, reinstated the applicant and ordered that he should be issued with a written warning for the misconduct.

On appeal, the Labour Appeal Court (LAC) held that the evidence as a whole established that the applicant had deliberately and falsely represented to the cashier that the total amount to be paid to the casual workers was R 180 instead of R 150 and that he intended to pocket the difference for his own benefit. Consequently, the only issue on appeal was whether the applicant’s conduct breached the trust relationship so as to render the continuation of the employment relationship intolerable.

Although it would ordinarily be prudent for an employer to lead evidence of irreparable damage to the employment relationship to justify a dismissal, the LAC was of the view that where an employee is found guilty of misconduct involving dishonesty or deceit, it would be difficult for an employer to trust that employee going forward. Autozone was entitled to have a driver it could rely on to act in good faith to advance and protect its interests. The applicant’s conduct, however, demonstrated that he was not such a driver. In the circumstances, it was not necessary for Autozone to have produced evidence to show that the employment relationship had been irreparably destroyed.

It was accordingly accepted by the LAC that dishonesty will render the employee unreliable and the continuation of the employment relationship unfeasible. The appeal was upheld and the LC’s decision was set aside and replaced with one in terms of which the applicant’s dismissal was declared to have been substantively fair.

What constitutes a temporary employment service?

In CHEP South Africa (Pty) Ltd v Shardlow NO and Others [2019] 5 BLLR 450 (LC), 201 workers were employed by Contracta-Force Corporate Solutions (Pty) Ltd (C-Force) to repair wooden pallets on behalf of CHEP South Africa (Pty) Ltd (CHEP). The workers, claiming that C-Force was a temporary employment service (TES) (otherwise commonly known as a labour broker), referred a dispute to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) in which they sought to give effect to rights contained in s 198A(3)(b) and (5) of the Labour Relations Act 66 of 1995 (the LRA), namely, to be deemed to be employees of CHEP for purposes of the LRA and to be treated on the whole not less favourably than an employee of CHEP performing the same or similar work.

The legal issue in dispute between the parties was whether C-Force was a TES as defined in the LRA. The workers contended that C-Force was a TES. CHEP, on the other hand, argued that C-Force was not a TES, but rather a service provider rendering services to CHEP as an independent contractor in terms of a service level agreement for the condition of pallets. In order for the workers to access both the right to be deemed permanent employees of CHEP in terms of s 198A(3)(b) and the right to be treated no less favourably than other employees in terms of s 198A(5), they must be working for a TES.

The CCMA commissioner ruled that C-Force was a TES and that the employees were deemed employees of CHEP. CHEP took the CCMA’s ruling on review. The Labour Court (LC) held that the applicable test on review was whether the CCMA’s ruling was right or wrong, rather than whether it was reasonable. However, it could still be attacked on the basis that it was unreasonable. The issue for determination lay in the interpretation of the definition of a TES in s 198(1) of the LRA.

A TES is defined as any person who, for reward, procures for, or provides to a client, other persons who perform work for the client and who are remunerated by the TES. An independent contractor is not an employee of a TES. With reference to this definition, the commissioner was required to determine whether C-Force provided CHEP with ‘other persons’, that these persons ‘performed work for’ CHEP, that these persons were remunerated by C-Force, and that C-Force provided these persons labour to CHEP ‘for reward’. A reward in this context means a fee payable for the work performed by the hired persons.

In interpreting the definition of a TES, the LC held that the issue was not whether a placed worker is an employee of the TES, what mattered was the relationship between the workers and the client, CHEP. The notion of ‘performing work’ means that the workers become part of the client’s organisation to pursue the client’s business interests. The TES is, in a sense, merely the third party that delivers the employees to the client. The employees do not contribute to the business of the TES except as a commodity. Accordingly, C-Force cannot be regarded as a TES if it did not ‘provide or procure’ the individual employees for reward to CHEP. The finding of the commissioner to the contrary constitutes a material error of law that cannot be correct.

Turning to the facts, the LC found that C-Force was not providing CHEP with ‘other employees’, but rather providing it with a specified product, namely wooden pallets. Further, C-Force was not receiving a reward or fee for providing employees to CHEP, but was pursuing its own business for profit. C-Force was a service provider, receiving an agreed price for a specified product. This arrangement fell outside the statutory definition of a TES. There was also no evidence that indicated that the relationship between CHEP and C-Force was an arrangement designed to evade s 198A of the LRA. The LC accordingly held that the commissioner’s finding that s 198A(3)(b) applied amounted to an error of law that rendered the ruling reviewable.

C-Force was declared not to be a TES as defined in s 198(1) of the LRA and its employees not to be deemed employed by CHEP.

Nadine Mather BA LLB (cum laude) (Rhodes) is a legal practitioner at Bowmans in Johannesburg.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2019 (Aug) DR 32.