This week in the Cosatu News, Fawu reported that : “A shop steward and employee of the Rainbow Chickens plant in Worcester, Zolani Newu, was suspended on Wednesday 4 March 2009 after wearing an ANC t-shirt to work.” (Dominique Swartz, FAWU media office, 6 March 2009)
Now it’s important to note that this is a food establishment – all employees are required to wear protective clothing in compliance with food safety regulations. So the clothing worn “to work” will be placed in a locker until going home time.
Since when has an employer been able to instruct employees on what they should wear “TO” work?
In the early 90’s, employers were extremely sensitive to “political” T-shirts. After 14 years of democracy and a few dozen political parties to vote for in the upcoming election, do we still need to be so sensitive? What does wearing a T-shirt really signify?
In these stringent economic times, we’re all starting to wear our clothes longer. How many of us possess T-shirts representing previous activities? What about the time we did the Argus cycle tour, or the Fun Run through Cape Town, climbed Everest or abseiled down Table Mountain – we may still wear those T-shirts, but it doesn’t mean we’re fit enough to participate today.
Equally, the fact that we have an old political T-shirt for the party we voted for in the first election is no indication that we will vote for that same party in this year’s election. Given the plethora of parties we have to choose from this year, wearing an old T-shirt might just throw everyone off the scent of where we’re actually going to place our cross.
But even if it is still our party of choice, does wearing a T-shirt constitute campaigning?
If I wear an ANC T-shirt in my front garden and greet my neighbour when he goes past, does that mean that I’m campaigning for the ANC? Clearly not.
If I wear a T-shirt about Che Guevara am I advocating revolution? Clearly not.
The Collins Shorter English Dictionary defines “campaign” as: “a series of coordinated activities, such as public speaking designed to achieve a social, political or commercial goal.” On this definition, wearing a T-shirt cannot constitute campaigning.
Yes, the company should be able to have a policy of political neutrality for the sales force going out in their own clothes to represent the company, but surely the T-shirt I wear to work – especially when I need to wear overalls for the working day – is my own business.
Is this just another example of the attitude still so prevalent among so many employers – that somehow they own the employee – that the Master and Servant relationship has not died?
It is time that employers realise that employees are adult citizens in an employment relationship within a constitutional democracy, but – far more critically – long overdue that human resource and industrial relations practitioners make that leap.