A cleaning company urgently turned to the Labour Court in a bid to try to prevent its former employee from working for another cleaning company, as it feared that she would share their trade secrets with her new employer.
Mapa Cleaning Technologies (the applicant) told the Labour Court in Johannesburg that it opened in 1998 and provided cleaning solutions to a variety of customers. According to Mapa Cleaning, what gave its business the edge over competitors iwa that its product range incorporated SABS-approved chemicals that it customised for use by individual customers.
The company said its sales representative, Pearl Kgwane, recently resigned to start working for a competitor, Prime Cleaning Supplies.
Mapa Cleaning said Kgwane had signed a restraint of trade agreement for six months when she started working for them. The company wanted to enforce that.
It said it provided cleaning solutions to a variety of customers, which included state-of-the-art chemicals, consumables relating to cleaning activities, floor-care machines, high-pressure washers, hygiene brushware, and related spares and accessories.
Mapa Cleaning employed “technical employees” who were responsible for the design and implementation of particular customer solutions (the products), and sales representatives responsible for the sales of the products to customers.
Kgwane started working for Mapa Cleaning in January 2021 and she focussed on sales.
As part of her contract, she was sworn to secrecy regarding her employer’s products and cleaning secrets and that for six months after she had resigned, she would not work for any close Mapa Cleaning’s competitors.
Acting Judge S Snyman, however, said it was clear from the employment contract that she was not in any manner responsible for chemical acquisition, supplier relationships, product design and composition, or any operational and technical activities.
It was only some time after she had resigned that her former employer realised that she was going to work for a competitor, also as a sales representative.
Kgwane’s former employer demanded an undertaking from her that she would not work for the competitor for at least six months but she had never given her undertaking.
In rushing to court for an urgent order to stop her from working for another cleaning company in the Gauteng area, Mapa Cleaning said it feared that its trade secrets would be divulged to a competitor.
Judge Snyman, however, said Mapa Cleaning had not demonstrated the existence of a clear right, despite having a legitimate and proper restraint of trade covenant and confidentiality undertaking in place with Kgwane.
Kgawane said she was a junior sales representative and held little sway in convincing customers to follow her to another employer. The interaction between her and the applicant’’ customers was more about taking orders and making sales, and not the close working relationship.
Judge Snyman said the applicant has failed to establish that the employment of Kgawane with Prime Cleaning, especially considering the terms she had been employed under there, constituted a breach of its protectable interests under the restraint of trade.
There was also nothing the applicant did, as a business, that Prime Cleaning did not do before it had employed Kgawane.
The court subsequently turned down the application.