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SA companies begin scrapping their Covid vaccine mandat...

Business Maverick

PANDEMIC POLICIES

SA companies begin scrapping their Covid vaccine mandates

Visitors queue for vaccines at the Discovery Ltd. mass Covid-19 vaccination site in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg)

Standard Bank and Old Mutual have dropped their Covid-19 mandatory vaccination and testing policies for all workers, months after implementing them. The CCMA has weighed in on the validity of vaccine mandates, finding — in one test case — that they are unlawful.

Big businesses in South Africa are beginning to drop compulsory Covid vaccinations and testing requirements for their workers, despite lobbying hard for such measures and announcing them with great fanfare at the start of 2022. 

Financial services giants Standard Bank and Old Mutual are among these businesses.

The two financial institutions say the mandatory policies are no longer required as most of their workforce (each at more than 90%) is already vaccinated against Covid. 

They also say the pandemic is at a stage where it is well-managed and understood, as reflected in the substantial easings of restrictions by the government, such as the scrapping of mask-wearing mandates.  

Lungisa Fuzile, the CEO of Standard Bank’s South Africa operations, puts it like this: “Based on the current context of the pandemic, we believe that our vaccination policy is no longer required. Consequently, it is no longer compulsory for employees to be vaccinated, or to produce a negative PCR or rapid antigen test if they are unvaccinated.”

Union pressure mounts

But there is possibly another reason why Standard Bank and Old Mutual have dropped their mandatory policy — a reason that neither company is arguably willing to admit. Both have already dismissed workers who refused to have the Covid jab, with Standard Bank firing at least 40 staff and Old Mutual parting ways with an estimated 89 employees. 

A trade union representing some workers of Standard Bank and Old Mutual was prepared to take both companies to court and challenge their sacking of the unvaccinated workers. 

The trade union is Sasbo, which has about 73,000 members in the financial services industry, including banks and insurers. Sasbo has been pressuring Standard Bank to withdraw its vaccine mandate, which the trade union said required all the bank’s workers to be vaccinated against Covid by 4 April 2022 — or face dismissal. 

Meanwhile, Old Mutual had a mandatory vaccination policy which it announced to the public in November 2021. Old Mutual gave its workers until January 2022 to produce certificates proving their vaccination status. Like Standard Bank, Old Mutual no longer has a vaccination policy. 

A Sasbo official told Business Maverick that its focus is getting other companies to repeal their vaccination mandates. Other business giants such as Sanlam, Momentum Metropolitan, Discovery and others implemented vaccine mandates earlier this year. They might be in Sasbo’s crosshairs.

Sasbo also wants to get unvaccinated workers who were fired reinstated to their positions. The union has vowed to challenge Standard Bank’s dismissal of at least 40 of its members for not complying with the vaccination policy. 

It’s unclear if Standard Bank and Old Mutual now plan to reinstate these dismissed workers and those who were placed on special leave. 

Labour federation Cosatu has joined the fray, calling for the reinstatement of the Standard Bank workers, adding that the dismissal of any worker “must be avoided at all costs”.

“Cosatu supports the vaccine rollout programme and as organised labour, we believe that education and addressing the fears of workers and society is the best way to persuade people to vaccinate. 

“Threatening and dismissing workers only serves to poison what has already become a very charged and divided debate across the world,” it said in a statement. 

Cosatu wants to challenge mandatory vaccinations at a national policy level, arguing that South Africa cannot afford more job losses.

Testing the validity of Covid mandates 

The legality of vaccine mandates is not well defined in South Africa, unlike in the US. In January 2022, the Supreme Court blocked President Joe Biden’s mandate of directing large companies to impose “vaccine or test” mandates on their workers. The top court handed the control of implementing mandates back to companies and states to decide their own vaccination regimes. 

In South Africa, the validity of vaccine mandates has been largely tested in the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA). 

An aggrieved worker, Kgomotso Tshatshu, who was fired after refusing the Covid jab after their employer implemented a vaccine mandate, approached the CCMA seeking either financial compensation or reinstatement. Tshatshu was employed as a senior inventory controller by Baroque Medical, which supplies medical devices to the health industry.  

Baroque Medical implemented a mandatory vaccination policy to ensure that its workers were not infected by Covid and to prevent absenteeism arising from health complications linked to the virus. 

Tshatshu refused to be vaccinated because she had an adverse reaction to a flu injection 10 years earlier and believed that Covid vaccines were “experimental”. Baroque Medical rejected Tshatshu’s reasoning and terminated her employment contract. She was not given severance pay. 

The CCMA found that a mandatory Covid vaccination policy in the workplace was unlawful, ordering that Tshatshu’s dismissal was unfair and awarding her a year’s salary as compensation. 

The CCMA ruled against Baroque Medical because it didn’t consider alternatives to mandatory vaccinations, such as requiring its workers to undergo regular Covid testing. Instead, the company opted for dismissals as a default. 

Lawyers consider this case as the start of court battles against the legality of vaccine mandates in South Africa. DM/BM

Gallery

"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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