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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

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Vaccine certificate war looms: Unions prepared to take issue of forced jabs to court

People get vaccinated at Moses Mabhida stadium. Picture: Zanele Zulu/African News Agency (ANA)

People get vaccinated at Moses Mabhida stadium. Picture: Zanele Zulu/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Mar 17, 2022


DURBAN - SEVERAL labour unions have vowed to go to any lengths possible, including the Constitutional Court, to oppose a move that will give permission for employers to ask for proof of vaccination from their workers.

According to the Employment and Labour Department’s new code, employers will have permission to require proof of Covid-19 vaccination from staff. Only staff who produce a medical certificate showing that they have contra-indications will be exempted from such a demand from employers.

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Contra-indications are symptoms or a medical condition that is a reason for a person not to receive a particular treatment or procedure because it may be harmful to them.

The code of practice further states that employees refusing to be vaccinated must be counselled, and be reasonably accommodated in positions that do not require them to be vaccinated.

Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi published in the Government Gazette the Code of Good Practice: Managing Exposure to Sars-CoV-2 (Covid-19) in the workplace. “In giving effect to this code, an employer may require its employees to disclose their vaccination status and to produce a vaccination certificate,” reads the code.

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In terms of the code, an employer is allowed to notify an employee of the obligation to be vaccinated and counsel the worker on the issues related to vaccines.

Employers must also permit employees, at their request, to consult a health and safety or worker representative or a trade union official and give administrative support to the employees to register and to access their Covid-19 vaccination certificates.

They can also give employees paid time off to be vaccinated and provide transport for employees to and from the nearest vaccination site.

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However the National African Teachers’ Union (Natu) warned that the proposal was likely to be used to force workers to vaccinate, even when they were against it, and threatened to challenge the proposal in court if necessary.

“As a matter of principle, we are not against vaccination, but believe that this should be a matter of choice,” said Natu acting president Sibusiso Malinga.

Another union, the Public Servants’ Association (PSA), also raised concerns about how the policy could be used as a form of discrimination, warning that they would also pursue the legal route if there were attempts to force people to vaccinate.

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“We have said it before that workers should be able to exercise their own choice and nothing to the contrary should be done by employers on staff,” said PSA’s KZN manager Charles Ngubane.

The South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) expressed an eagerness to scrutinise the policy proposal. “We have not had sight of this. It will be interesting to see how it is couched,” said Sadtu general-secretary Mugwena Maluleke.

He added that while they were against forced vaccination, there were work environments that demanded that, as part of the safety plan, workers should be vaccinated.

Cosatu parliamentary co-ordinator Matthew Parks noted that the proposal attempted a balancing act between the health and safety of vaccinated workers and those who had their reasons for not vaccinating.

He noted that in some countries vaccination was compulsory and governments had enforced this without resistance. “In countries such as China and Singapore this has been carried out, but South Africa has a different political culture and that is why forced vaccination is not going to work,” said Parks.

He conceded that certain professions demanded vaccination because of the nature of the work carried out.

He pointed out that there was already a legal precedent for mandatory vaccination, citing how schools demanded a vaccination certificate with applications for admission.

“Given the challenge with the balancing act, the Constitutional Court will probably be the final arbiter on the matter and that will be helpful in helping all of us to move forward as the country,” Parks concluded.

The SA Federation of Trade Unions was not available for comment.