Use of lie detectors put to the test

An upcoming court battle will challenge the practice of using polygraphs in the workplace — which has persisted in South Africa, despite the reliability of lie detector tests having been disputed for almost a century.

Papers filed in the labour court last week contest the assumed lack of legislation that protects workers against the use of polygraph tests.

The matter, brought by the General Industrial Workers Union of South Africa (Giwusa), relates to the dismissal of three warehouse workers at the Silveray Stationery Company in Heriotdale, Johannesburg.

According to an affidavit by Giwusa general secretary Johan Appolis, in early 2018 the workers were instructed by senior managers at Silveray to undergo lie detector tests.

When they refused, they were dismissed for being insubordinate and for breaching their employment contracts — which state that workers agree to submit to polygraph testing.

Silveray is opposing the court application. But it has not yet filed an affidavit responding to Giwusa.

The company had not responded to a Mail & Guardian request for comment by the time of publication.

In his affidavit Appolis says that before the workers were dismissed Giwusa wrote to Silveray to inform the company that the workers had not been insubordinate because a requirement to undergo polygraph testing is at odds with the Employment Equity Act.

Section 8 of the Act states: “Psychometric testing and other similar testing assessments of an employee are prohibited unless the test or assessment being used has been scientifically shown to be valid and reliable; can be applied fairly to all employees; and is not biased against any employee or group of employees.”

The dismissal was challenged at the Statutory Council of the Printing, Newspaper and Packaging Industry, and a commissioner found in favour of Silveray.

Bargaining councils, such as the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA), are tasked with resolving labour disputes.

Giwusa is seeking an order to review and set aside the award.

In his award, the commissioner noted that the workers had been disciplined previously for refusing to submit to polygraph testing.

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