This article was written by Stephan May, a candidate attorney at Norton Rose Fulbright South Africa
With the rise in popularity of reggae music in the western world in the 1970’s, the wearing of dreadlocks has become an increasingly fashionable hairstyle for both men and women. This hairstyle, however, is often met with scepticism due to its association with countercultures such as the hippy movement and other similar movements that criticise controlled society and commercialism.
In South Africa, the often shared sentiment of employers is that dreadlocks do not conform to appropriate work attire. Especially in organisations that strive to promote professionalism and a ‘neat’ appearance, the wearing of dreadlocks, amongst other fashions, is often specifically prohibited in respective dress codes.
Whether this sort of total prohibition is acceptable or not is the question that the Supreme Court of Appeal recently had to address in a case where 5 male correctional officers employed at Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town were dismissed due to their refusal to remove their dreadlocks in accordance with the correctional services dress code (judgment).
Broadly, the reasons the employees gave for refusing to remove their dreadlocks were based on religious beliefs and cultural practices. The employees claimed that their dismissals were automatically unfair because the department had unfairly discriminated against them directly or indirectly on the grounds of religion, conscience, belief, culture and gender as envisaged by section 187(1)(f) of the Labour Relations Act 66 of 1995 (LRA).
The court held that “without a question, a policy that effectively punishes the practice of a religion and culture degrades and devalues the followers of that religion and culture in society; it is a palpable invasion of their dignity which says that their religion or culture is not worthy of protection and the impact of the limitation is profound.”
The court held further that to determine whether such discrimination is justifiable, the provisions of section 187(2)(a) of the LRA need to be considered which stipulates that a dismissal may only be fair if the reason for the dismissal is based on an inherent requirement of the job.
Accordingly, the only way that an employer may legitimately request an employee to remove his/her dreadlocks or prevent an employee from growing dreadlocks for religious or cultural beliefs is if the employer can show that the growing of such dreadlocks will affect the employee’s ability to perform his/her duties or jeopardise the safety of the public or other employees, or cause undue hardship to the employer in a practical sense.
That having been said however, if you are an employee wearing dreadlocks merely as a fashion statement with no legitimate religious or cultural basis, there is nothing that prevents an employer from requesting you to remove your dreadlocks in accordance with its dress code.