Business Maverick


Vaccine mandates in the retail industry pick up, but many companies remain reluctant to enforce the jab

Vaccine mandates in the retail industry pick up, but many companies remain reluctant to enforce the jab
Pedestrians pass a window display of mannequins at a Truworths International Ltd. fashion store in Sandton, South Africa, on Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014. South Africa's consumers have been struggling in Africa's second-biggest economy due to unemployment of more than 25 percent and inflation that has increased to 6.6 percent. Photographer: Dean Hutton/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Barring two large retailers in South Africa, the broader retail industry has mostly tiptoed around the issue of mandating its workers to be vaccinated against Covid-19 while the country is in the throes of a fourth wave of infections.

Retail is a customer-facing business and workers in the industry, like those in healthcare, are at high risk of contracting Covid-19 because they are exposed to many people every day. 

Given this potentially life-threatening risk, the expectation would be for retailers to adopt, with speed and vigour, mandatory Covid-19 vaccinations for thousands of their workers in SA. After all, Covid jab mandates are now the norm in much of the US and Europe.

Barring two large retailers in SA, the broader retail industry has tiptoed around the issue of mandating its workers to be vaccinated against Covid-19 while the country is in the throes of a fourth wave of infections. 

Pharmacy chain Dis-Chem has joined a growing list of companies in SA that have made it compulsory for their workers to be vaccinated from 2022. Dis-Chem informed its more than 18,000 workers in a letter dated 6 December 2021 and circulated widely on Twitter, that they must be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 by 1 February 2022.

In the letter, Dis-Chem said workers not fully vaccinated by February next year would be required to present a negative Covid-19 antigen test every Monday before entering work premises. Unvaccinated workers would also have to wear N95 respirator masks. 

“Both of these [the Covid-19 test and face mask] will be at the employees’ cost. If either of these are not complied with, disciplinary action will be taken,” Dis-Chem’s letter reads. 

Dis-Chem said the 1 February vaccination deadline gives workers enough time to get the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine or the two-dose Pfizer vaccine (even with the 42-day waiting period between the first and second dose).

Justifying its decision, Dis-Chem said: “We are firstly and foremostly an organisation that operates in the healthcare sector, and it is critical that we embody care, a focus on the wellbeing of all, and care for life. Also, a large portion of our employees interact directly with the public. Therefore, as a Dis-Chem Group, we have made the difficult but necessary decision to make Covid-19 vaccinations a requirement across the Group.”

In a media statement couched in softer terms than the letter to its employees, the pharmacy chain confirmed that it plans to introduce a mandatory workplace vaccination policy from next year, saying its top priority is to “ensure the health and safety of its staff, customers and community”.

“For this reason, it [Dis-Chem] has advised that all staff must be vaccinated. For those who, for specific reasons won’t vaccinate, and to maximise the general safety of the public, a weekly negative Covid-19 test will need to be produced before entering the workplace.”

Pick n Pay sort-of embraces a vaccination policy 

Grocery giant Pick n Pay was the first large retailer to make tentative moves towards introducing compulsory Covid-19 jabs.  

Last week, a Pick n Pay franchise in Wellington sent a letter to a staff member telling them that they had 14 days to provide proof of vaccination or they would be subjected to a “disciplinary enquiry with the outcome of dismissal”. However, the staff member ignored the demand, and they have now been given until 10 December to prove their vaccination status.

The Pick n Pay franchise said it had implemented a vaccine mandate after it conducted “a risk assessment and considered the circumstances in the workplace”, as well as its obligations to provide a safe working environment for staff in line with the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

But Pick n Pay has not implemented a mandatory vaccine policy across the entire group. For now, it will be left to franchise owners of Pick n Pay stores to decide on a workplace vaccination policy.  

We support the objective of getting as many people vaccinated as possible. We have made it simple and convenient for all staff to get vaccinated, and continue to encourage our colleagues and customers to get vaccinated at the first opportunity. Franchisees are independently owned and are able to set their own policy,” Pick n Pay told Business Maverick

Pick n Pay, which has about 90,000 workers, has nearly 1,900 stores in SA, of which 45% are owned by franchisees.

Legally, there is nothing preventing retailers — including Pick n Pay, Clicks, Woolworths, Shoprite, Spar, Massmart (owner of Game stores, Makro, Builders Warehouse and others), Mr Price, TFG (owner of Foschini, Markham and others) — from implementing vaccine mandates.  

It seems, however, that many retailers fear angering their consumers (some of whom are spirited anti-vaxxers) and trade unions representing workers such as cashiers.

The government has urged companies to implement vaccine mandates on the grounds of promoting a safe working environment and protecting workers whose jobs pose a risk of exposure to Covid-19.

JSE-listed companies that plan to make vaccines mandatory from 2022 include MTN, Discovery, Standard Bank, Sanlam, Old Mutual, Mediclinic, Life Healthcare and Curro. 

There are likely to be many other companies that have done the same, but don’t grab media headlines simply because they are not listed. DM/BM

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"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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