Business Maverick

BUSINESS MAVERICK

No jab, no job: Big business pushes for mandatory Covid-19 vaccinations in the workplace

A Freedom of Choice No To Mandatory Vaccine Rally at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town on 21 August 2021. (Photo: Gallo Images/Brenton Geach)

Discussions between representatives of business, government, labour and communities will start in a few weeks on how to introduce vaccine mandates for all workers. A framework might be created that will help employers to isolate unvaccinated workers from the workplace, possibly either firing them or submitting them to weekly Covid-19 testing at their own cost.

Big business is weighing up whether to mandate Covid-19 vaccines for all workers and fire those who refuse to comply, as part of a plan designed to drive up vaccination numbers in SA, curb the rapid spread of the Delta variant and thwart future waves of infections. 

Business for South Africa (B4SA), which is made up of Business Unity SA and the Black Business Council and was formed to respond to the Covid-19 crisis, has, in principle, thrown its weight behind the introduction of vaccine mandates in SA.

B4SA chair Martin Kingston said big business has agreed to start “substantive” discussions about how a framework for vaccine mandates can be created and rolled out in a coordinated manner to target unvaccinated workers. 

The framework might include steps that employers can take to isolate unvaccinated workers from the workplace, possibly firing them, or submitting them to weekly Covid-19 testing, an expense that they would have to pay out of their pocket. The discussions over the framework will involve business, labour, government and community representatives at formal negotiation structures such as the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac). 

Kingston said B4SA and big business are worried about SA’s low vaccination rate – with less than 20% of the adult population fully vaccinated – adding that there is a need to increase the daily rate of vaccinations “dramatically and urgently” before the onset of the fourth wave of Covid-19 infections, which might hit SA as early as mid-November.  

A vaccine dose is prepared at the Sea Point Methodist Church in Cape Town on 9 September 2021. Workers may refuse to be vaccinated in terms of their constitutional right to bodily integrity, but worker rights are not absolute.  (Photo: Gallo Images/Brenton Geach)

“We only have two months to get as many people vaccinated. If one way of encouraging them to be vaccinated is putting in place vaccine mandates – either on a company or sectoral basis – then we, as business and B4SA, support and encourage that,” Kingston, who also sits at Nedlac, told Business Maverick.

Government guidelines on workplace jabs

It’s currently left to companies to design their corporate vaccine policies and whether to make vaccinations mandatory for all workers. Business giants such as Sanlam and Discovery plan to impose mandatory Covid-19 vaccinations from 2022 but haven’t pledged to fire workers who refuse the jab. 

The Minister of Employment and Labour, Thulas Nxesi, has left it to companies/employers to conduct a Covid-19 risk assessment in line with occupational health and safety standards, which will allow them to determine whether vaccine mandates are required to keep workers safe in the workplace. Nxesi recently issued guidelines that help employers in finding reasonable solutions to ensure workplace safety.

Workers may refuse to be vaccinated in terms of their constitutional right to bodily integrity; the right to freedom of religion, belief or opinion; and on medical grounds. But worker rights are not absolute. Employers can still implement vaccine mandates after conducting a risk assessment on grounds that they want to, among other things, promote a safe working environment, and protect workers whose job poses a risk of exposure to Covid-19 based on their age and underlying health condition(s).

B4SA’s Kingston said big business has accepted that vaccine mandates are “deemed to be in the public good and consistent with the current government regulation” and are “not a contravention of human rights”.

Job losses

The big question is whether employers should fire workers who refuse to be vaccinated. 

Said Kingston: “If you do not want to be vaccinated, then the employer is obliged to ascertain whether alternative work is available. When all options have been explored, the employer has the right to commence the due process with respect to terminating the employment of the individual concerned.”

Possible job losses over the refusal to take the vaccine might pit employers against trade unions representing workers. Cosatu is already concerned about workers being possibly pushed into a corner to get the vaccine, with Matthew Parks, the labour federation’s parliamentary coordinator, saying that SA’s trade union movement wants to work with employers to protect worker rights.

Protesters at the Freedom of Choice No To Mandatory Vaccine Rally at Groote Schuur Hospital on 21 August 2021. Big business believes South Africa’s only fighting chance against future Covid-19 variants and lockdown regulations that undermine economic activity is getting more vaccines into arms. (Photo: Gallo Images/Brenton Geach)

“We support an approach to vaccinations premised upon educating, persuading and incentivising people to vaccinate, not one that is based upon coercion or punishment. That will only serve to distract us when we all need to focus on convincing everyone on why they need to vaccinate,” Parks, who also sits at Nedlac, told Business Maverick.  

Big business believes that South Africa’s only fighting chance against future Covid-19 variants and lockdown regulations that undermine economic activity is getting more vaccines into arms. Incoming Business Unity SA president Bonang Mohale believes that the roll-out of vaccines in the workplace and taking the jab to people’s homes through door-to-door programmes should be the next priority to increase the country’s vaccination numbers. 

The private sector should lead the initiative on door-to-door vaccinations, said Mohale. “Business is much better at project management, delivering megaprojects on time, on budget and in full. Meanwhile, the government always misses its targets.” DM/BM

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