What is the Law on Tea Breaks at Work?

Most bosses understand that their workers are not untiring machines that can perform without let-up. Regardless of the job, people need breaks. They need time to pause and catch their breaths so that they don’t burn out before the day’s over. Mostly, employees can look forward to their lunch break for a little bit of rest and relaxation, while others (if they’re lucky enough) also get the odd tea break to enjoy as well. But this raises a few questions. Are you entitled to these breaks or can they be taken away? And should you be getting paid during your breaks? All in all, we have to ask ourselves – What does the law say? Are you Legally Allowed Breaks at Work?

Yes, you are. According to the Basic Conditions of Employment Act 1997, employees who work for more than 5 hours continuously must be given a meal interval of at least one hour. There are, however, 2 major caveats to this ruling, namely –

  • A contract may shorten this meal interval to as little as 30 minutes
  • A contract may dispense with such an interval if the employee works for less than 6 hours a day

Some eagle-eyed readers may have already noticed that the term ‘meal interval’ seems to refer more to a lunch break than to anything else. If you’re one such reader, you may be wondering what the law says about tea breaks specifically.

What is the Law on Tea Breaks at Work?

Do Employers Have to Give 15 Minutes Breaks?

Notably, the Employment Act does not mention tea breaks. What this means is that, while employers may choose to give their workers tea breaks, they are not forced by law to do so.*

While tea breaks are a common occurrence in many workplaces around the country, they are not required by law, and thus, they are normally governed by individual contracts negotiated by the employers and their workers. When you accept a job, pay special attention to the stipulations regarding your potential breaks. Some contracts may allow workers to enjoy a small break around tea time while others may state that only the meal interval specified in the Employment Act may be observed.

If your boss does provide you with a short tea break during the day, that’s great! Just remember that a tea break is not considered a break in working time, in other words, once an employee has worked for 5 continuous hours they will be entitled to a meal interval, even if they had a 15-minute tea break halfway through the 5 hour period.

*It is also important to note that some work sectors have unique pieces of legislation that provide specific allowances, for example, the SD9: Wholesale and Retail Sector makes special provisions for employees to have two 15 minute breaks in addition to their meal intervals.

How many Hours do you Have to Work for Before you are Entitled to a Tea Break?

As mentioned, you are generally not entitled to tea breaks by law and any rules with regard to your potential tea breaks will be determined by your contract. Some contracts specify exactly when a worker may take such a break while others simply detail how many tea breaks an employee is allowed in a day before leaving the worker to decide when they want to take these breaks.

What is the Law on Tea Breaks at Work?

If you work in a sector that provides you with additional breaks, you can read the relevant legislation which should detail when these breaks become available to you, for example, the aforementioned SD9 notes that these 15-minute work breaks should take place as near to the middle of each work period as is practical.

Are Tea Breaks Paid or Unpaid?

There is actually some debate over whether or not a tea break should be paid or unpaid. Once again, as the topic is not generally mentioned in the legislation, the decision will normally be made during the formulation of the work contract. Usually, lunch breaks are unpaid time that belongs to the employee, however, some bosses view tea breaks as a small enough interruption that they can effectively be considered as time worked.

By contrast, some sectors do make special provisions that entitle workers to be paid for their shorter breaks, for example, the Metal and Engineering Industries Bargaining Council provides workers with two 10 minute breaks at full pay.

Can your Employer Ask you to Work During your Lunch/Tea Break?

Workers may be required or permitted to work during their lunch breaks only when there are certain duties that cannot be left unattended or cannot be performed by another employee. Once again, the regulations for a person’s tea breaks will be determined by their contract.

An employee who is asked to work during their lunch break must be compensated for their work.

Can you be Fired for Taking Long Tea/Lunch Breaks?

Yes, you can, but only within reasonable limits. Constantly taking extended lunch/tea breaks or continually spending an unreasonable amount of time in the bathroom can be viewed as a form of absenteeism and can provide grounds for a legal dismissal.

What is the Law on Tea Breaks at Work?

Most workplaces will specify within their contracts the maximum amount of time that an employee may take-off during a break. If an employee repeatedly goes over these established times, this may be considered a breach of their contract.

What is a Daily/Weekly Rest Period?

The Employment Act details the maximum amount of ordinary work time and overtime that a person is allowed to work for each day. That said, the act also specifies how much time the worker must have off to rest once the workday has ended. This is known as the Daily Rest Period.

Workers covered by the Employment Act must be given 12 consecutive hours of rest between the ending and recommencement of work. Additionally, workers must also be given a weekly rest period of 36 consecutive hours which must include Sunday unless otherwise specified by a written agreement between the employee and an employer.

These written agreements can also adjust the daily and weekly rest periods in other ways, for example –

  • The daily rest period can be reduced to 10 hours if the employee lives on the workplace premises and if a meal interval of at least 3 hours is allowed.
  • The employee can be given a rest period of 60 consecutive hours every two weeks

OR

  • The weekly rest period can be reduced by up to 8 hours in any week so long as the next week’s rest period is extended by the same amount

In Conclusion – What does the Law say about Tea Breaks at Work?

According to the Basic Conditions of Employment Act 1997, employees who work for more than 5 consecutive hours must be given a meal interval of at least one hour, although contracts may reduce these breaks down to 30 minutes. Contracts may even get rid of these meal intervals entirely if the employee works for less than 6 hours a day.

Notably, the Employment Act does not mention tea breaks and thus, no worker is entitled to such a break by law. While it is fairly common for businesses in South Africa to give their workers short tea breaks during the morning work period, this is provided at the employer’s discretion or is established in a work contract rather than being assigned by law.

What is the Law on Tea Breaks at Work?

That said, some business sectors do have sectoral determinations which specifically provide for short rest periods throughout the day. These breaks, and tea breaks in general, are not normally viewed as a break in work time and thus, do not affect when a meal interval is required.

Contracts are typically used to determine whether tea breaks should be paid or not and if an employee can be asked to work during their tea break, as a result, workers should be wary of the wording in any written agreements as these contracts will play a huge role in their future work lives. It should be noted, however, that employees who constantly take extended tea breaks may be in danger of legal dismissal.

The Employment Act also makes provisions for daily and weekly rest periods which must be given to workers after the workday and workweek respectively. The prescribed lengths of these rest periods are as follows –

  • Daily Rest Period – 12 consecutive hours
  • Weekly Rest Period – 36 consecutive hours

These periods of rest can also be adjusted by written agreements between the employers and their workers.

Disclaimer LAW101: All of our posts are for research purposes only. Law 101 aims to assist its readers with useful information on the laws of our country that can guide you to make decisions in line with the South African Governmental Laws currently in place. Although our posts cite the constitution in many instances, they are intended to assist readers who are looking to expand their knowledge of the law. Should you require specific legal advice we advise you to get in touch with a qualified legal expert.

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