We have had numerous requests over the past few months as to whether the load shedding can affect the employment relationship, and in particular, the payment for work not done. The reality of the situation is that any businesses, stretching from manufacturing to retailing, have periods of non-activity where they are unable to produce and make money and they have no electricity. On many occasions, the staffs that are on duty have nothing to do and are certainly not productive due to no fault of their own. Furthermore, these lengthy periods of non-activity have led to internal dissention and sometimes even disputes, and there have been reports of increased theft. On a few occasions, the boredom has created a disciplinary type situation, and has even led to dismissals.

Obviously, businesses could manage the down time effectively. This would lead to less expenditure and a much more satisfactory situation. Clearly, if a business is able to sustain itself on its own generators, and if they can afford to keep these generators going, this would be the answer. However, many businesses do not have that facility, and in the majority of cases the businesses could not afford to supplement their energy with their own generator.

Some businesses fall under the auspices of Bargaining Councils, and many of the Bargaining Council agreements cover the approach to short time, and have structured arrangements between their employees and their trade unions. These arrangements normally allow a business to inform both their staff and/or the trade union the shift beforehand so as to enable the management to declare that there will be short time during that shift, and hence nobody should report for duty. When the staffs do not report for duty, they do not earn, but at the same time they do not incur the travel expenses. On many occasions, this short time is made up at a later stage when electricity is available. This allows the staff to make up the lost income, and for management to make up the lost production. These short time arrangements are in fact temporary reductions in the number of ordinary weekly hours of work in an establishment. The power outage is in fact beyond the employer’s control, and is in fact an existence of the trade in South Africa. We have all come to accept that power outages and blackouts (load shedding) will be with us for many years to come. The business community needs to ensure that it is able to manage these power outages to everyone’s best advantage. Up until now, many businesses are structuring their days on an ad hoc basis, whenever a power outage occurs. This is not acceptable, and we need a more solid economically advantageous approach to the load shedding.

The load shedding does in fact lead to slackness of work, and this is a period of inaction where we can in fact identify the cause. The power outage in fact is an emergency in the business. In light of the emergency and in light of the fact that businesses cannot sustain the ongoing wage payments during power outages, it is important for them to consult with the trade unions, and if there are none with the staff directly, about the forthcoming power outages.

Obviously it is vital for the municipalities and Eskom to produce reliable schedules of when these power outages will occur. Up until now, the load shedding schedules have not been reliable, and to a large degree, have not been adhered to. If the schedules could be relied upon, then the management of the companies could enter into these negotiations on the basis of reliable down time when the outage occurs. Once the consultation takes place and the schedule can be relied upon, then the employer would not be obliged to pay its employees during that down time.

Employers would be able to manage this down time during the load shedding in terms of industrial agreements with its staff and/or the trade union involved at the workplace.

It is suggested that agreements be struck as soon as possible, outling how they are going to handle the discussions and negotiations, and how the schedules of the load shedding will be distributed to the staff concerned.

The onus to identify the periods when the load shedding will affect the business is upon the management, and it is up to the management to consult directly with the staff as to when the power outages will occur, and when there will be down time.

Obviously, to make up these short hours, management would then consult with the staff to develop an overtime policy, and the payment for the overtime that would be worked in.

On certain occasions, employers are hit with a power outage without notice. On those occasions, it is suggested that employer approach their staff to take their lunch hour or any time off that they would be receiving during the day. If the outage is for a longer period of time, the staff could be asked to leave by agreement. This would mean that they would not get paid for that time.

In essence, employers are expected to manage the outages properly, and are expected to fully consult and engage with the staff, and if necessary with the trade union, when they are faced with the schedule of load shedding.

MICHAEL BAGRAIM BA. LLB.