JSE-LISTED firms have started consolidating their position on mandatory Covid-19 vaccines for the coming year as cases in South Africa continue to rise from the new Omicron variant, which has become the dominant strain.
MTN Group and Sappi yesterday joined a growing list of companies that have adopted a mandatory vaccine policy for their employees starting from January 2022.
MTN, the largest telecoms network provider in Africa, said its new vaccine policy was a measure to meet its legal obligations in regard to providing a safe workplace.
Employees will have a right to apply to be exempted from the policy on certain clearly defined grounds, but those who are not exempt and still refuse vaccination could be fired.
MTN chief executive Ralph Mupita said the policy shall be subject to risk assessment and local laws that apply to the group and its operating companies and subsidiaries.
“Our new Covid-19 policy recognises that some of our markets don’t have adequate access to vaccines,” Mupita said.
“It also recognises some low-risk roles that will be accommodated with full-time work-from-home or alternate arrangements, but this will be a small population within our workforce.”
In June, a directive from the Department of Employment and Labour permitted employers to introduce mandatory vaccination policies in their workplaces provided certain consultation requirements were met.
As a result, companies started opting for mandatory vaccination in order to ensure a safe workplace environment, but that has also opened them up to potential legal challenges.
Discovery Health was the first large South African employer to announce that it would be implementing a mandatory vaccination policy at its workplace with effect from January 2022.
Several other large employers have since followed suit, including Sanlam, Curro and Life Healthcare, Old Mutual, Sanlam, Discovery, Sibanye-Stillwater, and Anglo American among others, with the support of workers unions.
Herbert Smith Freehills employment lawyer Jacqui Reed said the law was in companies’ favour in this instance, but an application seeking a declarator may be the best way to increase vaccination rates amid hesitancy.
“Undoubtedly, this is a human resource management issue and the ability to persuade employees to vaccinate is the preferable approach,” Reed said.
“If this is not successful, it appears from the above that employers who dismiss an employee for failing to be vaccinated will not have infringed upon the employee’s constitutional rights nor will this constitute unfair discrimination.”
Pulp and paper group Sappi yesterday also introduced a vaccine mandate for its employees, with almost 4 000 staff members, 3 000 contractors and just over 1 100 family members already having taken the jab.
Sappi chief executive Steve Binnie said they continued to advocate for vaccination while following the guidance and legal framework within the countries in which they operate.
“To fully benefit from this turn-around and to drive strong growth through 2022 we need a company (and countries) not hampered by avoidable disruption,” Binnie said.
The government has appointed a task team to look into the matter of enforcing vaccine mandates in public for the unvaccinated public, but is supporting businesses on this move.
Business Leadership SA (BLSA) chief executive Busi Mavuso said there was much that the government could do to make it easier to mandate vaccination, but companies can do a lot more.
“I would like to see companies publicly reporting on what they are doing to drive vaccine take up both internally and in the wider public – they should be rewarded by public recognition,” Mavuso said.
BUSINESS REPORT ONLINE