Why constructive communication with employees is so important

Dec 1, 2009


Communicating properly and on an ongoing basis with employees is not only required by
law under certain circumstances, but is also advised in order to maintain trust and good
working relationships within any business. Even in situations where employers are not by
law obliged to communicate with employees it is nevertheless best practice to do so. The
following case will illustrate this point.

In the matter of South African Chemical workers Union v Unitrans Supply Chain Solution
(Pty) Ltd t/a Unitrans Freight and Logistics and Another [2009] ZALC 32 BP informed
employees during 2005 that its warehouse and distribution business would be transferred
to Unitrans as a going concern (in terms of s 197 of the LRA). This off course had the
result that the affected employees’ contracts of employment would by law transfer
automatically to Unitrans. SACWU was subsequently informed that the transfer would take
place on 1 May 2006. On 17 May 2006 several employees met on the premises of their
now new employer, Unitrans, to discuss their unhappiness with the transfer and the way it
was affected. Several of Unitran’s and BP’s representatives went to the canteen to talk to
the employees. The employees did not recognize Unitrans as their employer and did not
want to listen to the Unitrans representatives. The Unitrans managers instructed the
employees to return to work and issued them with two ultimatums to return to work. The
following morning the employees reported to the workplace but refused to work. After
failing to attend disciplinary hearings the employees were subsequently dismissed.

The court held that it was common cause that the employees did not utilize any pre -strike
procedures before they embarked on the work stoppage. The work stoppage was an
unprotected strike and the conduct of the employees was unlawful and unjustified.
However, the court found that dismissal was too harsh given BP and Unitran’s role in the
whole process. The court held that the entire transfer was plagued with poor
communication amongst all the parties. BP and Unitrans had a mutual duty to inform the
employees fully regarding all aspects of the transfer. In the result, the court held that the
dismissal of the employees was substantively unfair, and Unitrans was ordered to pay
compensation to each of the employees equal to four months’ remuneration, as well as
SACWU’s costs.

When it comes to communicating with employees, employers should therefore keep the
following in mind:

  • When it comes to communicating with employees, employers should therefore keep the
    following in mind:
  • Effective communication with employees will not only create trust, but also
    strengthen relationships in the business, as employees feel that they are informed
    of what is happening within the business at all times, even though the news may
    not also be good.
  • Even where there is no legal duty to consult with employees, employers will
    nevertheless, be well advised to do so, as illustrated by the ca se in point.
  • Although the LRA does not force employers to consult with employees where an s
    197 transfer is implemented, employers should nevertheless communicate with
    employees regarding the process, as is evident from the case under discussion.
    Employers should, for instance, compare the conditions of employment with the old
    employer to that offered by the new employer, and if there are some differences
    (not material though), these should be communicated to, and discussed, with
    employees sooner rather than later. Communication is advised in order to let the
    process run as smoothly as possible. Where the changes in conditions of
    employment is material; however, employers are by law obliged to negotiate and
    agree these changes with effected employees, as they cannot sim ply unilaterally
    implement these changes.

December 2009

This information is published for general information purposes and is not intended to constitute legal advice and should not be construed as such. Specialist legal advice should always be sought in relation to any particular situation. Maserumule will accept no responsibility for any actions taken or not taken on the basis of this publication. Consent must be obtained from Maserumule before the information provided herein is reproduced in any way. No person shall have any claim of any nature whatsoever arising out of, or in connection with, the information provided herein against Maserumule and/or any of its personnel.