Short time is an arrangement between an employee and an employer where the employee will work fewer ordinary hours per week than what he would typically do. He would only be paid for the actual hours worked. It may be utilised by employers as a cost-cutting measure as an alternative to retrenchments. If implemented correctly, this tool may provide a much-needed lifeline to many employers who are facing financial difficulties.

A contract of employment constitutes an agreement between two people, and one party cannot simply change the conditions thereof without the consent of the other party. Similarly, implementation of short time constitutes a change in the terms and conditions of employment which may not be introduced unilaterally.

As stated previously, short time pertains to a situation where an employee’s normal working hours are temporarily reduced as a result of a reduced need for services to be tendered. The CCMA has defined the concept in that it is “a temporary reduction in the number of ordinary hours of work owing to reasons including slackness of trade, shortage of raw material, vagaries of weather, breakdown of plant machinery or buildings that are unfit for use or is in danger of becoming fit for use”.

In Independent Commercial Hospitality and Allied Workers Union and others v CCMA and others (2015) LC, the employer responded to challenging financial circumstances by implementing short time. The affected employees refused to comply with these changes on the basis that they had not agreed to such and were dismissed as a result. The court held that under the circumstances, the employer had the option of lockout or could have embarked on a retrenchment exercise, offering the option of short time as an alternative. The employer further would have been entitled to dismiss if there were valid operational reasons justifying the same. In this case, the employer omitted to explore this option and unilaterally proceeded to implement short time. The court found that the instruction to work on a new shift system was unreasonable and constituted a unilateral change of employment conditions and that the employee’s refusal to accept such does not amount to insubordination. This very drastic example shows the extent of the risk associated with implementing short time unilaterally.

Where an agreement has been reached regarding short time, the employee must still understand that all the other contractual obligations and rights as per the employment contract still apply.

Article by: Janeske Greeff
Dispute Resolution Official – Cape Town