CONTEMPT OF COURT: Labour Court fines union members R1m for defying Court Order

The Labour Court has again shown it’s getting tough on unions and their members who continue to defy its orders and labour laws. This time, it’s handed a hefty R1 million fine to NUMSA members who continued a strike despite a court interdict which ordered them to stop it immediately.

The employees at Betafence went on strike over a wage dispute without first issuing a strike notice. The company applied to court for an urgent interdict to order them to return to work.  Betafence and NUMSA agreed to the terms of a Court order which suspended the strike with immediate effect.

The employees defied the order and pleas from their union and continued the strike. The company went back to court – this time to declare them in contempt of the court order. The court granted the order and restated the well-established requirements for contempt of court as follows –

(1) There must have been a court order;
(2) The order must have been properly served on the parties bound by it; and
(3) There must have been wilful and mala fide non-compliance with the court order.

In this case, NUMSA had made various attempts to persuade the employees to comply with the Court Order but they simply ignored them. The Court found the employees’ non-compliance to be both wilful and mala fide. It had the following harsh words to express its displeasure:-

“An observation that needs to be made in this Court is that employees, especially in the face of strike interdicts, routinely disregard the orders of this court for no reason other than that they simply do not like them. This contemptuous approach towards orders of this court is in some or most instances, aggravated and/or encouraged by Unions, their officials and/or shop stewards. In some instances, as in this case, employees refuse to even heed the advice of their union representatives and leaders…”


“This level of contempt has reached a point where if unchecked, the rule of law will become meaningless. In the end, anarchy and mayhem, which normally characterizes most industrial actions we have witnessed, will become the new normal. This cannot bode well for our constitutional democracy, and only a stern approach by the courts can stop this slippery slope”.

The Court concluded this deserved a “heavy penalty” and fined the employees R1 million. It was suspended for 24 months provided they were not again in contempt of the final Order.

TIP: The court has sent a powerful message that it will no longer tolerate wilful defiance of its orders. It is a clear warning to union members and others for that matter that they will pay a heavy price if they defy the laws and orders of the court. Employers should communicate this message to their unions and employees to encourage respect for the rules of engagement in the workplace. 

Betafence South Africa (Pty) Ltd v NUMSA & Others (C194/2016) [2016] ZALCCT 33
Source: SA Labour Guide 24 October 2016 Article by James Horn, Cowan-Harper Attorneys


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