Discovery employees fired over WhatsApp group messages

Discovery Health has dismissed 10 employees for contravening the company’s social media policy and acting maliciously against the company, based on the messages in a WhatsApp group.

The Sunday Times reports that the employees started the group to support each other after contracting Covid-19 in April.

The employees complained to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation, and Arbitration (CCMA) about their dismissal, arguing that they were unfairly dismissed and demanding 12 months’ salary from the company as compensation. They have accused the company of unhealthy labour practices and invading their privacy.

Discovery Health chief executive Ryan Noach told the Sunday Times that a whistleblower who was a member of the WhatsApp group reported the women and made available contents of their discussions.

These discussions “revealed clear and explicit details of these employees … initiating, planning and coordinating efforts to maliciously shut down Discovery,” he said.

In its letter to one of the affected workers, Discovery Health said the employee had “shared information and messages that were clearly prejudicial to and derogatory of the company” and accused them of making false and damaging statements about the company to an external party and attempting to organise a shutdown of Discovery offices in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town.

“Our expectations are that staff raise concerns internally, affording us the opportunity to clarify or resolve any items that may give cause to whatever concerns they may have,” Noach said.

“The evidence that we have in our possession illustrates that this group failed to take up opportunities to raise specific concerns internally and instead chose to act maliciously and unfairly in an attempt to achieve their nefarious end of an office closure by bringing the company into disrepute.”

Cybercrimes Bill

The case comes as South Africa plans to introduce a new Cybercrimes Bill which will provide further regulation over data communications such as WhatsApp messages.

While the Bill primarily deals with criminal offences, it does specifically deal with the distribution of harmful data messages, imposing obligations to report cyber crime, and creating offences which have a bearing on cyber crime.

Concerns have previously been raised about the ‘vagueness’ of these messaging rules, especially because of the steep consequences attached to them.

Notably, a previous version of the bill stated that any person who contravenes one of the provisions is liable on conviction to a fine or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding three years, or to both a fine and imprisonment.

These provisions include:

  • A message which incites damage to property or violence;
  • A message which threatens persons with damage to property or violence;
  • A message which unlawfully contains an intimate image.

The committee indicated that it has subsequently approved amendments to the bill to address some of these concerns.

“The proposed amendments agreed to by the committee includes altering the tone of the Bill to reflect non-binary language, as required by considerations of gender-neutrality, equality, dignity and identity and the restructuring of clause 16 to specifically reflect the impact of the considerations in criminalising the disclosure of data messages of intimate images,” it said.

Committee chairperson Shahidabibi Shaikh said all the concerns raised by the committee were addressed by the department and the parliamentary legal advisor in the Bill.

The chairperson also highlighted the fact that this bill, once enacted, will be the first non-binary legislation to be passed in South Africa.

Read: Discovery delivers Covid-19 earnings warning

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Discovery employees fired over WhatsApp group messages