Western Cape farmer drops jab threat to expel workers

By Siphokazi Vuso, Okuhle Hlati Time of article published Sep 15, 2021

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CAPE TOWN - Refuse the jab, and keep your job.

That’s now the new approach a Piketberg farmer has had to take after facing mounting pressure for issuing staff with a letter, warning that if they don’t take the vaccine, they will lose their jobs.

The Cape Times on Tuesday reported on Rob Duncan’s workers at his Pomona Farm expressing their shock he used what unions and activists described as “abusive master-slave tactics” to have farmworkers take the Covid-19 vaccine.

His letter dated September 1 read: “Vaccination for anyone who is 18 years and older has been open and we have registered and transported everyone who has asked. I have asked all people who do not want to vaccinate to come and give me reasons for not wanting to vaccinate. To date, only two people have come to see me and I have spoken to two others.

“From Wednesday, September 8, 2021, anyone who is 18 years older will no longer be allowed to work, live or visit Pomona Farm unless they can show proof of vaccination.”

This, despite vaccines not being made mandatory in South Africa.

Western Cape department of labour inspectors descended on his farm on Tuesday to inspect the risk management plan, but Duncan had already withdrawn the letter.

“We have withdrawn the letter and have not taken any action against anyone. After consultation today with the Department of Labour, we will now look into how it may be possible to have non-vaccinated staff at work without compromising the safety of the vast majority of staff, who have chosen to vaccinate.

“Keeping people safe and our business operational will remain our top priority. We remain hopeful that the four people who have decided not to vaccinate will change their minds in the future,” Duncan said.

The farm has about 81 employees. Provincial department of labour chief inspector David Esau said he spoke to workers who had refused the vaccine, with some saying this was due to lack of understanding about it.

“The most critical point is that, yes, there is recourse for the employer when employees refuse to take the vaccine, but it must be done in consultation with the workers, a union or a health and safety committee. It is those unions that must decide that they agree with the employer on the course of action that they will take,” he said.

Rural and Farmworkers Development Organisation executive director Billy Claasen has welcomed the farmer’s about-turn, saying: “We plead with our farmers to take hands with us so that moving forward we can work together to combat this pandemic. We cannot do it on our own, and we cannot do it in a vacuum. We must work together to do it. We cannot force people to take the vaccine; it is their own decision, and it must be respected.”

Meanwhile, mandatory vaccination debates have also started at higher education institutions with two universities in the Western Cape probing the possibility of compulsory vaccinations.

UCT has proposed that every student, as a condition of registration next year, be required to provide proof of having been vaccinated. All staff members would also need to provide proof of vaccination.

According to the Student Representative Council (SRC), more than 130 of UCT's top professors and academics have endorsed the proposal.

"While we have debated this extensively in the SRC, we have concluded that we cannot take a position on mandatory vaccinations without ascertaining the views of the student body. We are requesting that students (and interested staff) share their views through a survey, so that we can collect data and opinions.”

UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola said a proposal on vaccinations would be considered by the Senate at a meeting scheduled for Friday.

"The view of the Senate, should it support a proposal for vaccinations, and the view of representatives of staff and students, will be put to the UCT Council," said Moholola.

Stellenbosch University spokesperson Martin Viljoen said they were also investigating the possibility of making vaccinations compulsory.

“A task team has been appointed to do a risk assessment of the various factors involved in this for staff and students at SU. This is necessary in accordance with a regulation on health and safety issued by the Department of Employment and Labour in June this year. The outcome of the risk assessment will guide our vaccination policy. It is an institutional priority for SU that all staff and students are vaccinated – in the interest of health and safety.”

National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) provincial secretary Baxolise Mali said the union opposed compulsory vaccination.

“We… appreciate the Constitutional rights of every citizen on the matters of freedom of choice and right to religion. Our position is that workers must be motivated to get vaccinated, and not to be forced to do so, because even getting vaccinated doesn't mean those with certificates can't infect other workers, including those vaccinated,” said Mali.

*Can an employee be dismissed for refusing to be vaccinated? The Cape Times will unpack that question with Riola Kok, the employment practice Professional Support Lawyer at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr Inc during a Facebook Live webinar at 2pm today.

Cape Times

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