Our courts have adapted in many different ways to the “new normal” of the pandemic and its resultant lockdown and health and safety issues, and now from the Labour Court comes an important new development in regard to the use of video conferencing (in this case via Zoom) by an employer contemplating a large-scale retrenchment exercise.
The trade union involved objected to the final consultation meeting being held over Zoom, and when the employer nevertheless issued retrenchment notices after proceeding with the meeting online in the union’s absence, the union cried foul and asked the Court to declare the process procedurally unfair. The Court’s decision to affirm the use of video conferencing is particularly significant now that retrenchments are becoming an increasingly prominent feature of our embattled economy.
“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.