The Contest Between Religious Interests and Business Interests ‒ TFD Network Africa (Pty) Ltd v Faris (2019) 40 ILJ 326 (LAC)
Keywords:freedom of religion, human rights, automatically unfair dismissal, unfair discrimination, common-law duty, employer’s interests, labour law legislation
The right to freedom of religion is one of the fundamental human rights. This is evident from several sections of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 (the Constitution), including sections 9, 15 and 31. Section 9(4) prohibits unfair discrimination (whether direct or indirect) against anyone on one or more of the grounds listed in section 9(3), which includes religion. Section 15(1) states that everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion, while section 31(1)(a) provides that persons belonging to a religious community may not be denied the right to practise their religion with other members of the community.
In line with the Constitution, labour legislation such as the Labour Relations Act 66 of 1995 (LRA) and the Employment Equity Act 55 of 1998 (EEA) also protects this right. Section 187(1)(f) of the LRA provides that if an employee is discriminated against and is dismissed based on religion, among other grounds, such a dismissal will be deemed to be an automatically unfair dismissal. Section 6(1) of the EEA prohibits unfair discrimination, whether direct or indirect, in any employment policy or practice based on prohibited grounds such as religion. It is evident from all the above provisions that the right to freedom of religion is vital to people’s lives, including employees’ lives.
Although an employee has the right to practise religion, he or she also has the common-law duty to render services or to put his or her labour potential at the disposal of the employer as agreed in terms of the contract of employment – except during the employee’s annual leave, sick leave and maternity leave. An employee may therefore be in breach of this duty if he or she refuses to work or deserts his or her employment or absconds from his or her employment or is absent from work without permission. In addition to the above duty, employees have a duty to serve the employer’s interests and to act in good faith.
Often, employees’ right to freedom of religion collides with their duty to render services and to serve the employer’s interests; employees present various reasons related to their religious practices for their failure to render services. As a result, employers are regularly required to be lenient and make efforts to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs in the workplace. At times, this becomes a burden to employers as they have to accommodate employees with diverse individual religious interests, but also ensure that their businesses remain operational. Religion remains one of the most contentious and problematic areas for employees and employers to deal with in the workplace.
The discussion that follows evaluates the court’s finding in view of relevant constitutional provisions, labour law legislation and common law. It further considers the position under American law regarding religion and reasonable accommodation in the workplace.