ALLEGE someone is a racist at work and they are as good as dead. It’s an indelible mark of Cain in modern South Africa.
That’s why extra care should be taken when charges of racism are involved. Even when you’re cleared of such charges your life can literally be ruined – and in the case of Raymond Weitz that’s exactly what he says happened.
Weitz was employed by Goodyear for at least 25 years when allegations of racism were made against him during June 2010. He was suspended in the wake of the claims; the dispute was ultimately referred to arbitration and an inquiry was held. At the start of the inquiry two of the charges were withdrawn and at the end of the proceedings he was found not guilty in relation to the third and last remaining claim.
But for Weitz it was not simply business as usual even after the finding in his favour.
Following his initial suspension and the proceedings that followed, his mental state became increasingly fragile. He was diagnosed with major depression and post traumatic shock syndrome and was ultimately boarded when it became clear he could no longer work.
Now he’s claiming virtually R2-million from Goodyear, citing the company’s ‘unlawful, false and malicious conduct’ against him.
Goodyear has tried to prevent the case from going ahead by arguing an ‘exception’ to Weitz’s claim. The company says that his case, as presented on the papers, lacks allegations that would sustain a claim.
But Goodyear’s attempt to derail the case, dealt with by Judge Jannie Eksteen in the high court in Port Elizabeth, didn’t work. This week the judge decided that Weitz’s case could go ahead. Of course that’s no indication that Weitz will win but it does mean that the whole matter must be properly ventilated.
Goodyear’s lawyers argued that racism is a serious matter, and that when someone is charged with such an offence action is required. Suspension and a disciplinary inquiry, such as took place in relation to Weitz, were lawful and were precisely what the law required of an employer.
When an employer received complaints about racism there was no obligation for the company to investigate before bringing a disciplinary inquiry, said Goodyear’s lawyers. Of their very nature, the disciplinary proceedings were themselves an inquiry.
‘Moreover,’ they added, in the context of the Constitution and its values of human dignity, complaints of racism in the workplace ‘must be considered serious and should be subjected to an inquiry.’
Judge Eksteen said it was correct that ‘allegations of racism in the workplace in South Africa constitute serious charges.’ Employers had to take them seriously. But in addition they would ‘inevitably, also have a serious impact upon the employee’.
Then he quoted the Code of Good Practice on dismissal which forms part of a schedule to the Labour Relations Act. It requires that an employer should ‘conduct an investigation into the allegations prior to disciplinary proceedings being initiated.’ Where an employer fails to do so it would amount to ‘a breach of a legal duty’, the judge suggested.
He also quoted from a standard academic text on dismissal: Since disciplinary action may be prejudicial to employees, it was ‘only fair that an employee should not be subjected to a charge of misconduct unless there are at least prima facie grounds for suspecting that the employee actually committed the misconduct alleged.’
Was there proof that the suspension and disciplinary process caused Weitz’s health problems?
A report by the medical expert who examined Weitz said that he ‘was a broken man after his shoddy treatment and remains ill.’
The report adds that Weitz was ‘falsely accused of racism’ and that after extensive investigation and a hearing he was found not guilty. During the process he discovered that ‘colleagues lied and made false statements.’
It continues: Weitz became ill after it was alleged that he had been racist and he was suspended for 20 months before the hearing at which his name was cleared. However, ‘he was severely ill and even though his name was cleared, he was unable to work and was declared unfit for work.’
Goodyear, however, argued that the connection was too remote for them to be held responsible. It could not have been foreseeable that laying disciplinary charges against Weitz would result in such emotional trauma that he would no longer be employable.
Who can tell what will happen when the case itself is argued – but at the very least it should make bosses more careful about taking disciplinary action over a serious matter like racism without making proper initial inquiries.