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  • Writer's pictureDu Plooy Inc

Employee Looting and Strike Violence: When Is Dismissal Fair?

Employee looting and/or violence can take place during strike action or it can occur during non-workplace incidents such as the recent looting and public disorder sprees. In both cases employers need to take action, but with care.

Addressing firstly the “strike” scenario, employees have strongly entrenched rights when it comes to taking industrial action. But strikers who indulge in, or associate themselves with, any form of violence or intimidation can expect little sympathy from our courts.

Two Labour Appeal Court decisions illustrate -

Dismissed for associating with a crowd assault

“Within a labour law context the requisite intention exists where it is proved that an employee intended that misconduct would result or must have foreseen the possibility that it would occur and yet, despite this, actively associated himself or herself reckless as to whether such misconduct would ensue” (extract from the judgment below)

First up is the case of 148 workers dismissed for misconduct during a strike.

  • When the employer’s Human Resources Manager left his office to engage with the strikers they surrounded and seriously assaulted him. He was pushed out of a glass window, had rocks thrown at him and was punched and kicked while he lay on the ground. He feared for his life and was left with injuries to his face, arm, and body. Video footage showed striking employees celebrating and chanting after the assault was over.

  • At a disciplinary hearing 12 employees were found to have participated directly in the assault, and the others were found to have participated by association and thus to have acted with “common purpose”. All were summarily dismissed.

  • The Labour Court confirmed all 148 dismissals. 41 of the employees appealed to the Labour Appeal Court on the grounds that common purpose in the assault had not been proved because there was no evidence that they had been on the scene of the assault, nor that they had been aware of the assault, had intended to make common cause with it, or that they had performed an act of association with it.

  • Quoting from the Constitutional Court that “it was unnecessary to place each employee on the scene to prove common purpose which can be established by inferential reasoning having regard to the conduct of the workers before, during and after the incident of violence” and commenting that “…the inference drawn that all employees were involved in or associated themselves with the assault became the most probable and plausible”, the Court held that the 41 had been present at the scene and had associated themselves with the actions of the group before, during or after the misconduct. The Court accordingly confirmed the dismissals.

Dismissed for carrying sticks, piping, and a sjambok in a picket line

“The constitutionally protected right to strike does not encompass a right to carry dangerous weapons on a picket line which, by their nature, not only expose others to the very real risk of injury, but also serve to threaten and intimidate” (extract from the judgment below)

The second case saw a group of employees dismissed after taking part in a national strike which turned violent.

  • Three of the employees each carried a stick while picketing with a group of other strikers, another carried a length of PVC pipe and the fifth carried both a stick and a sjambok. Others in the crowd carried a golf club and an axe respectively. At least two people sustained severe injuries during the course of the strike.

  • The employees were charged with “brandishing or wielding of dangerous weapons during [the] strike” and following disciplinary hearings they were dismissed.

  • When the matter eventually came before the Labour Appeal Court, it upheld the dismissals, finding that the strikers were aware of a workplace picketing rule barring weapons of any kind being “carried or wielded” by picketers and that they “knew or could reasonably have been expected to have known that disciplinary action could result if the picketing rules were breached.”

  • The end result is yet another warning to employees that whilst their right to strike is strongly protected by constitutional principles, strikes and picketing become unlawful if they are not peaceful, non-violent, and free of dangerous weapons.

What about off-duty employees who took part in the recent public looting?

Published images and videos of the recent orgy of public looting and destruction show criminal behaviour so blatant and shameless that many of the perpetrators will no doubt be readily identifiable by their employers.

You may feel justified in proceeding immediately against any of your employees so implicated, even though they happened to be off-duty and nowhere near your workplace at the time. After all, who wants a looter or arsonist working for them?

But whilst our laws may well entitle you to take action against some or all of such employees, that will generally be so only when their provable criminality is in some way linked to, and relevant to, their employment. The law in this regard is unfortunately too complex, and too full of grey areas, for any advice beyond the general observation that you should certainly consider immediate disciplinary action, with the strong caution that specific professional advice is essential beforehand.

Violence and Looting – Can You Sue SAPS?

“When a crime is imminent and foreseen it is expected of the law enforcement agency to take appropriate action. The duty of the police to provide assistance arises from their mandate to carry out law and order” (extract from judgment below)

Can you sue the police if they fail to protect you during unrest and violence? It’s an important question not just for employers dealing with strike violence. In the aftermath of the massive damage caused by the recent public unrest and looting, the case we now discuss will no doubt find application far beyond the labour relations field.

Strike violence - damages for a vandalised farm and an assaulted employee

  • A large fruit farm was subjected to a month-long strike “characterised by violence through various acts of intimidation, assaults, malicious damage to property, vandalism, theft, road blockades and various acts of looting.”

  • Ahead of the strike, SAPS (the South African Police Services) had been informed of the looming strike and of suspicions that “there is a great likelihood that the strike is likely to be violent.”

  • What followed was a litany of violent action by a large crowd of strikers - stonings, petrol-bombings, arson, assaults, intimidation, brandishing of knobkerries, threats of murder, looting, and destruction of property. 251 strikers were dismissed after disciplinary hearings, an event which itself led to more violence.

  • The farm and a non-striking worker stabbed by strikers sued SAPS in the High Court for damages. Although many of the facts were disputed in evidence, the Court found that the employer had made numerous pleas to SAPS, based some 15 km away, for assistance. During one police response, said the employer, it was informed that the police had no capacity to assist, whilst on many other occasions the police failed to respond at all.

  • A Labour Court interdict and contempt of court order were allegedly not enforced, and whilst various criminal charges were laid during the course of the strike, few arrests took place (four of them only when police themselves were stoned).

  • On the basis of the evidence before it and its analysis of the duty of the police to provide assistance when a crime is imminent, the Court ordered the Minister of Police and the National and Provincial Commissioners of Police to pay “proven or agreed damages” arising from the strike “as a result of their wrongful and negligent conduct.”

  • Critical to the outcome was the Court’s findings that “The police had a legal duty to act positively to prevent harm to the Plaintiffs. The legal convictions of the community required of the police to act more swiftly to prevent harm to the Plaintiffs. The legal convictions of the community incorporate constitutional values and norms and in our constitutional democracy it cannot be acceptable of the police to sit idle when they should have reasonably foreseen that the strike will turn violent. When a crime is imminent and foreseen it is expected of the law enforcement agency to take appropriate action. The duty of the police to provide assistance arises from their mandate to carry out law and order.”

  • Factually, the Court found that “The police had the capacity to patrol the area and conduct continuous monitoring which they failed to do. Their failure to respond to various pleas for assistance was not only negligent but wrongful” and “the conduct of the police viewed against the legal and public policy considerations, constitutional norms and values was unacceptable and accordingly unlawful.”

Will these principles apply to unrest and looting claims generally?

Of course the recent public unrest, destruction of property and looting were on a totally different scale and took place in a very different context to the facts before the Court in the case above.

At time of writing, media reports suggest that a general failure by security services to foresee and forestall the violence may have rendered them largely incapable of reacting effectively to whatever pleas for help they may have received. In contrast, in the case above the Court seems to have accepted that the police had the resources to react effectively but failed to do so. So although the general principles laid out above will no doubt assist in any attempt to hold the police liable for looting and other losses, time alone will tell whether victims will actually be able to prove any degree of police liability, either generally or in specific instances.

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