Most of us will celebrate the day we are offered a COVID-19 vaccination, but here in South Africa as overseas it seems inevitable that a significant number of people will refuse to be vaccinated. The reasons given for this stance have been many and varied, some mainstream and reasonable, others less so.
Perhaps some of those refusing will reconsider if and when they find they are denied opportunities available to those vaccinated – travel restrictions spring to mind but another example could be establishments like hotels and restaurants getting sticky on the issue if customer demand for safety grows.
A knotty problem for employers
Nevertheless, there will still be many “refusers” – all convinced that they are being entirely reasonable in refusing – and they could pose a knotty problem for you as an employer. On the one hand you have both legal and moral obligations to keep your workplace as safe as possible, but on the other hand refusers have their own strong legal and moral rights, both as citizens and as employees. For example, health, bodily integrity and privacy concerns, and concerns related to religious and cultural beliefs, raise issues of constitutional protection.
It boils down to a series of competing questions. Can you fire employees for refusing vaccination? Can your vaccinated employees and/or health officials hold you accountable for allowing unvaccinated employees into the workplace? Can employees who are vaccinated at your behest hold you liable if they suffer adverse reactions or health problems?
Between a rock and a hard place…
That all leaves employers walking a tightrope between competing sets of risks and employee rights, with the added complication of statutory requirements to provide a safe working environment.
There is unfortunately no clarity on what line our courts will take when addressing the many disputes that will inevitably arise, but amidst all the speculation there does at least appear to be broad consensus that a case-by-case approach is probably the safest and the fairest way to proceed.
That suggests that the most prudent course, at least until there is some clarity from the courts, is to tread carefully and lightly, and to act strictly in line with the general principles of our employment laws.
Some general principles to bear in mind
Every business will have its own particular business activities, needs and employees. So most importantly, take advice specific to your workplace!
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