Answer to a question from a reader

What can be done about abusive treatment in the workplace?

The short answer

You can report the matter to the CCMA.

The whole question

Dear Athalie

When the new General Manager started, he said that some staff members will not be working here much longer. When we complain about unfair working conditions, he tells us that if we don't like it we must leave because we are easily replaced. We get threats like this almost daily. He degrades us and calls us derogatory names. He doesn't even respect anyone. He also won't give us time off to get our Covid jabs because he is anti-vaccine. 

The long answer

Firstly, the Constitution says in section 23 that “everyone has the right to fair labour practice” and in section 10 that “everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected”. That means that every worker has the right to be treated with dignity and respect at work and no worker has to put up with harassment by employers.

The Employment Equity Act of 1998 states that “(1) No person may unfairly discriminate, directly or indirectly, against an employee, in any employment policy or practise, on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, family responsibility, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, HIV status, conscience, belief, political opinion, culture, language and birth.”

And although South African Labour Law doesn’t specifically define what workplace harassment is in terms of this act, the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) has developed information sheets that confirm that "harassment" in the workplaces includes:

  • Bullying;

  • Spreading malicious rumours;

  • Insulting persons;

  • Degrading, or picking on, another;

  • Overbearing supervision or other misuses of power or position;

  • Exclusion or victimisation;

  • Unfair treatment;

  • Unwelcome sexual advances and/or gestures;

  • Making threats/comments about job security without foundation.

The CCMA says that workplace bullying may be physical, emotional or verbal harassment. It goes on to advise that a worker should take notes and keep a record of every instance of alleged bullying. This is so that there is proof of the allegations.

The CCMA also says the person being harassed should confront the harasser directly to stop the harassment but to be sure to have a witness present. If the bullying behaviour doesn’t stop, the worker should lodge a grievance under the company’s grievance policy. Once the case has been reported, the employer is obliged to investigate the case and if necessary disciplinary action must be taken against the harasser. 

Bradley Workman-Davies in a 2019 article confirmed that bullying was a form of harassment and must be dealt with in terms of the Employment Equity Act as unfair discrimination. He cited the case of Private Sector Workers Trade Union on behalf of Opperman and Gerrie Ebersohn Attorneys (2019) 40 ILJ 1159 (CCMA). 

Obviously, in any workplace, for a grievance to succeed, there must be a commitment by the majority of workers to see it through together, and not be intimidated by the abusive behaviour. It would be a good idea to have a meeting of workers to discuss the way forward and to affirm their commitment to support one another.

You can contact the CCMA for further information at:

Wishing you the best,

Answered on Dec. 3, 2021, 4:48 p.m.

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