'Workers have right to free, critical speech'

Alfred Moselakgomo

Alfred Moselakgomo

A growing number of violations of freedom of speech by employers represent an attack on media freedom, the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) said yesterday.

The FXI was particularly disturbed by cases that have been brought to its attention. They concern workers who have either been disciplined for utterances they made or have already been dismissed.

"These cases point to a growing trend where attempts are made by employers to silence criticism of their management practices.

"This calls into question the commitment of employers to the constitutional rights of employees," said FXI executive director Jane Duncan.

The FXI's remarks come after the Director of Performance Management in the City of Cape Town, Themba Jack, was hauled before a disciplinary hearing for "serious misconduct, insubordination and bringing the city into disrepute".

Jack apparently wrote a letter to the MEC for local government and housing, Richard Dyantyi, in November last year complaining about "the city's disregard for proper and fair labour practices".

Jack is a member of the South African Municipal Workers' Union (Samwu). His disciplinary hearing takes place tomorrow.

In another case involving a Samwu member in the Eastern Cape, union chairman David Toyis has been suspended by the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality, pending a disciplinary hearing.

He has been charged with several offences relating to a meeting of workers he addressed in Port Elizabeth. One charge states that he is guilty of misconduct for supporting statements critical of the municipality which were made by the SACP.

In February, the Metsimaholo Municipality instituted disciplinary proceedings against employee and Cosatu chairman for the Free State, Patrick Seshea, for - among other things - criticising the municipality in the media.

He was dismissed in May. Seshea's arbitration hearing is being conducted by the Local Government Bargaining Council.

The disciplinary proceedings were instituted in terms of a municipal manager's instruction. The instruction ordered employees to refrain from communicating with the media about the municipality's affairs.

In another case, a member of the General Industries Workers Union, Bongani Ntuli, is disciplined by his employer, Capacity Outsourcing, for distributing a pamphlet at a picket outside Johnnic Communications.

The company claimed the pamphlet contained "information that is derogatory and offensive to the good name of the company".

Duncan said the FXI was distressed by the fact that these employers do not seem to have taken into account that the Constitutional Court has ruled that employees have a right to engage in speech that is critical of their employers.

"This principle was once again upheld last year, when the CCMA reinstated Superspar worker Vusi Sibeko-Khumalo, after he was dismissed for defaming the company's managers," she said.

Duncan said speech about working conditions is of considerable public importance, and workers should not fear recrimination for speaking out.