Court dismisses bid by SABC union to halt retrenchment process

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A general view of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) offices in Durban, South Africa.
A general view of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) offices in Durban, South Africa.
Darren Stewart
  • The Broadcast, Electronic, Media and Allied Workers Union, which brought the application, says it will consider other available legal options.
  • The SABC welcomed the ruling, saying it showed its restructuring process has been procedurally fair.
  • Unions and the public broadcaster now have until the end of December to discuss the retrenchment process. 

The Labour Court has dismissed an urgent application by a union representing SABC workers to force the public broadcaster to rescind retrenchment letters issued to about 400 workers. 

In a brief sitting on Wednesday, the court ruled that the "applicant's application is dismissed" with costs, a setback in the fight by the Broadcast, Electronic, Media and Allied Workers Union (Bemawu) to have the process declared irregular and invalid.

The controversial process had split the SABC board and reached the hallways of Parliament.

Last month, the cash-strapped public broadcaster started issuing retrenchment letters to 400 staff in an attempt to reduce its wage bill. Some of the staff could have applied for new positions. 

Speaking to the broadcaster after the ruling, Bemawu President Hannes du Buisson said the union would study the judgement and decide on a way forward. He vowed to fight on.

He insisted that the ruling does not signify an "end of the road for SABC employees". The union is still of the view that the retrenchment process must be halted. 

The SABC, meanwhile, welcomed the ruling. "The Labour Court has... validated that the SABC’s Section 189 process has been procedurally fair and that all participating stakeholders were afforded ample opportunity to engage meaningfully," the public broadcaster said in a statement. 

Last month, the Minister of Communication and Digital Technologies, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, announced that the implementation of the section 189 process would be suspended until the end of the year to allow for further consultation between all the parties.

The process has been delayed before. Earlier in November its board declared a seven day suspension, amid lunchtime pickets by employees at offices across the country.

Du Buisson decried the continued extensions by the broadcaster, saying a moratorium was announced each time they approached the court, in an apparent bid to frustrate their legal bid.

Bemawu and its counterpart, the Communication Workers Union (CWU), have accused the SABC of failing to engage with them over the planned restructuring which the company says is necessary to curb runway costs. 

SABC welcomes order

The SABC has for many years been dogged by financial challenges, as it struggled to generate enough income from advertising and license fees to end its reliance on public coffers. 

The broadcaster welcomed the court order, adding that the outcome validated its view that the section 189 process has been "procedurally fair and that all participating stakeholders were afforded ample opportunity to engage meaningfully."

It further stated that it had conducted 16 consultative sessions over the last four months, with seven of those facilitated by CCMA commissioners. The unions have, however, maintained that there has not been sufficient engagement.

The extent of the SABC's financial woes was evident in its latest annual report, which showed a net loss of R511 million, as well as another fall in advertising income.

A process of selling-off non-core properties in a bid to free up cash is underway, as was revealed last week. The sale will take place in a public auction.

This is not the first time that the SABC has been embroiled in a retrenchment process in recent years.  In 2018, a plan to cut 1 200 freelancers and 981 permanent employees was shelved, leading unions to declare victory.

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