FILE PHOTO: Mike Hutchings

Durban - Twenty radio mast engineers employed by MTN in Durban secured justice over the phone on Wednesday when a Johannesburg-based judge granted them an interdict against the company, stopping it from taking away their company cars and petrol cards before the Easter long weekend.

In the absence of a judge to hear the urgent opposed matter in the Durban Labour Court because it is in recess, Judge Anton Steenkamp agreed to hear argument over the telephone through a teleconference facility, ruling immediately afterwards that the company had attempted to change their employment conditions unilaterally.

While the dispute over that had to be finally resolved, MTN, “a multi-million rand company” would suffer very little harm by extending the benefit until then, he said, in a written judgment he handed down later that same day.

The matter came before the judge after MTN threatened to remove the employees’ company cars on Wednesday.

When they were all employed, they were given the benefit of the use of the cars which they could also use for personal purposes, up to a certain limit.

Decided to scrap

Evidence before the judge was that the company had decided to scrap the use of company cars in December last year and had told those affected about this the same month, advising that the decision would be effective the following April.

A dispute was referred to the CCMA, but when it was set down for arbitration, the company, for the first time, raised certain technical legal points which had to be dealt with before the merits of the matter.

They were argued on March 26 and the arbitrator said he would rule within seven days, past the deadline for the cars to be taken away.

MTN opposed the interdict application saying the matter was not urgent.

The judge said “at first blush” one could have sympathy with the argument because the employees had known from December they could lose their cars.

“However, they followed correct procedure by first referring the dispute to the CCMA… it was only when the company belatedly raised issues that remain unresolved, that it became urgent. The urgency was created by the company,” he said.

He said the employees would suffer substantial harm if the cars were taken away.

“They are merely asserting the continuation of a right that has traditionally accrued to them as employees pending the final determination of the dispute,” he said, granting the interdict.

Attorney Dean Caro, who acted for the employees, said the decision to take away company cars affected about 520 MTN employees nationwide.

“The company says it is is a tool of the trade, not a benefit. So it will not negotiate for, say, car allowances. Instead it says the cars will be put into a pool and can be taken out for work purposes only. We say that is unfair in law.”

He said the interdict would have no impact on the other affected employees, but the eventual outcome of the arbitration could have.

The Mercury