As a health worker and a trade unionist who supports a rapid mass rollout of the vaccines, I do not agree that employers should be allowed to force workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Some workers are now being required by federal and state-based Public Health Orders to be vaccinated. Workers in aged-care have to have their first jab by September 17.
Despite quarantine workers being nominated as a high priority group for the vaccine, it was only last month that National Cabinet decided the jab would be enforced. But, unlike the aged-care sector, there is no timeline for these workers.
In New South Wales, Western Australia and Victoria, compulsory vaccination orders are in place for aged-care workers, quarantine workers, some transportation and airport workers and some health care workers.
Queensland is in the process of enacting them, and South Australia, Northern Territory, Tasmania and ACT have no plans to do so.
Some employers are now calling for mandatory vaccinations to be able to restart the economy. Michelle Grattan argued in The Conversation on August 12 that compulsory vaccinations would give greater protection and accelerate the lift of movement restrictions.
First, we need to understand the context of this debate.
The information bungling and mixed messaging around AstraZeneca almost halted Australia’s vaccine rollout in its tracks.
Those who were vaccine hesitant, or suspicious, had had their worst fears realised. This was whipped along, in part, by sections of the corporate media and a lack of clear information and direction.
Delta, a variation of the original COVID-19 virus that is 4-6 times more infectious, was first identified last December in India. It reached Australia in April-May via returning travellers and was transmitted largely as a result of inadequate hotel quarantine.
The rapidity of the Delta transmission has now led to NSW being entirely locked down, as well as parts of Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory.
In NSW, the infection rate is rising, as are the numbers in Intensive Care Units, as well as deaths. A much younger cohort is becoming ill.
Inadequate federal job protection support has meant that, as lockdowns continue, many face real financial hardship, in addition to the stresses of social isolation.
The federal government continues to state it will not make vaccination mandatory: many in its ranks would be up in arms, including those who are already very angry at the lockdowns.
But it also knows that the die-hard anti-vaxxers are few in number: its latest “vaccine sentiment” survey revealed just 7%. Some 79% intend to get vaccinated, or have already done so, and the remaining 14% are still making up their minds.
After a briefing by the solicitor-general last week, Morrison made out he was concerned to protect individual workers’ choices by stating he would not give employers the power to make vaccinations mandatory. He also said he would protect businesses from lawsuits brought by workers who become infected.
The advantage of vaccinations is obvious. But, in the absence of a Public Health Order, the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) said employers would have to rely on directions to employees being judged “lawful” and “reasonable”.
The FWO updated its advice on August 13 to emphasise that employers and employees should “work together to find solutions that suit their individual needs and workplaces”.
This is not a directive to vaccinate. It laid out how employers could support employees including by: providing leave or paid time off to get vaccinated; helping ensure workers had access to reliable and up-to-date information about vaccines and where they do not wish to be vaccinated, or do not have access to explore other options, including alternative work arrangements.
Australian Council of Trade Union (ACTU) secretary Sally McManus said the FWO meant that the only employers with the power to mandate vaccinations are covered by a Public Health Order, such as those working in aged care, quarantine and some health settings. “For everyone else, really, there’s no clear right to be able to mandate vaccines,” she said.
But even without compulsory vaccinations, employers must still ensure occupational health and safety regulations are followed. This means they are responsible for ensuring workplaces are safe, including access to hand washing, cleaning, social distancing measures and personal protective equipment.
The ACTU wants paid vaccination leave for workers in aged and disability care.
The NSW Construction, Mining and Energy Union (Construction Division) opposes the NSW government’s order that a condition of construction workers returning to work sites is that they are vaccinated. It is promoting an educational focus, including notifying workers of NSW Health vaccination hubs.
The Australian Nurse and Midwives Federation (ANMF) in Victoria said the government must not use mandatory vaccination to blame aged-care workers for its vaccine roll-out failures. The union wants aged care staff vaccination rates to rise, but is against punitive measures to get there. A confusing patchwork of grants will not help, it said.
The Victorian Trades Hall Council is urging workers and their families to get vaccinated as soon as possible. It supports education and information on all COVID-19 matters and is against mandatory vaccinations for workers, unless it is a public health issue and is mandated by a Public Health Order.
Safe Work Australia has updated its advice warning that the majority of employers do not have the right to require employees to be vaccinated, and most workers will not be entitled to refuse to work because a colleague has not been inoculated.
Vaccination alone is not going to prevent infection and transmission. There is mounting evidence that, despite mass vaccination, COVID-19 will around for years to come.
While we still do not know about the efficacy of the vaccines, or how long they provide immunity. We may need a yearly booster, like the Influenza vaccine.
While vulnerable groups such as the elderly, people with disabilities, those with chronic health conditions and the immunocompromised will still be vulnerable and may still die, as they do with Influenza, we do know that those who are fully vaccinated are less likely to become severely unwell and require hospitalisation.
While the long-term effects of the vaccines and long-term effects of the disease remain unknown, we know it is safer to be vaccinated.
Community and union-led campaigns to encourage people to get their jabs is very important, particularly as distrust of government is, understandably, at an all-time high.
[Zeta Henderson is the Vice-President of Geelong Trades Hall and is a health worker.]