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Beware Of Default Awards

BY lvan lsraelstam, Chief Executive of Labour Law Management Consulting. He may be contacted on (011) 888-7944 or 0828522973 or on e-mail address: Web address:

If an employer fails to attend an arbitration hearing the CCMA has the power to issue a default award in favour of the employee. That is, it is possible for an employer to receive an unfavourable arbitration award in respect of a CCMA case that they never knew existed because it had never received a notice to appear at the CCMA. Such awards can require the employer to reinstate the employee or to pay him/her tens of thousands of rands in compensation. This can happen for a number of different reasons including:

  • The employer’s administrator received the CCMA notification via fax, text message, email or post but did not give it the relevant person at the employer.

  • The employee gave the CCMA the wrong address for the employer.

  • the possibility that the CCMA did not ensure that the notice of the arbitration hearing reached the employer.

It can also occur that an employer loses a case because the presiding commissioner was incompetent. Fortunately, not all CCMA commissioners are incompetent. I have had the pleasure of presenting cases before some highly competent arbitrators. However, there are too many case decisions made at the CCMA that are overturned by the Labour Court.

Uncertainty as to whether or not you will have a competent arbitrator is bad enough. However, if you also arrived at the CCMA without labour law expertise you are doubly weak. That is, if the arbitrator is weak and you are strong in labour law you may well be able to help the arbitrator see that light. But if your own knowledge is also bad you are a sitting duck for your opposition’s legal representative.

Due to the fact that ignorance of the law is no excuse employers who do not know the law normally come of second best at the CCMA. Why do employers, decades after the creation of the new Labour Relations Act (LRA), still not know the law? There are many reasons:

  • The LRA has been badly written in parts and is therefore confusing to employers. That is, many sections of the LRA are very general and broad leaving too much room for interpretation or abuse.

  • CCMA rules dealing with how the parties must proceed with matters get struck down by the courts as legally unacceptable. For example, in the case of Premier Gauteng & another vs Ramabulana NO and others (CLL Vol.17 February 2008) the Labour Appeal Court struck down CCMA Rule 30 that allows commissioners to dismiss cases where employees fail to arrive for conciliation meetings.

  • The vast difference in interpretation of the LRA by arbitrators and judges adds to the confusion amongst employers. It frequently occurs that findings by one arbitrator/judge is overturned by another and then overturned again.

  • Even those laws that are reasonably clear and less subject to interpretation are very complex and numerous. For example, it is clear and unambiguous that an employer must give an employee a hearing before firing him/her for misconduct. However, how that hearing must be conducted is complicated.

  • Employers are unwilling to spend the time and money necessary to train their managers on how to discipline and otherwise treat their employees. It is only when employers lose a case at the CCMA that they realise the value of legal expertise.

Parties will not know in advance what level of expertise they will find in the arbitrator who hears their case. The best a party can do, in view of this uncertainty, is to ensure that they spare no expense in going properly equipped to the CCMA. Becoming properly equipped to go to CCMA is best achieved via strategy including the following steps:

  • Recognition by top management that labour law presents an extremely dangerous minefield for the employer

  • Training of all managers, supervisors and HR/IR professionals in the labour statutes and case law

  • Acquisition of the services of an expert in labour law implementation to help deal with disciplinary, grievance, retrenchment, merger, CCMA, bargaining council, trade union and other labour matters.

Properly equipped employers will be able to:

  • Distinguish between good and bad arbitrators

  • Tactfully point out to the arbitrator where he/she might be erring

  • Recognise which acts of the arbitrator, if any, need to be taken on review.

  • Gain a firm grasp of the LRA and of the laws of evidence

  • Manage their employees productively and effectively while remaining within the law.

To access our experts debating thorny labour law topics please go to www.labourlaw and click on the Labour Law Debate icon in the main menu.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Lexinfo CC.

Posted: 23 August 2023

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