Vaccinations save lives. But should employers be able to make vaccinations compulsory for their workers?
The SPC food processing business in Shepparton, Victoria, yesterday became the first private sector employer to declare that all workers and visitors to the site must be vaccinated by November.
And on Friday, Scott Morrison gave the green light to all employers to do the same, while piously promising that vaccination was not mandatory.
The federal government has already declared that all workers in residential aged care must have at least one jab by mid-September.
The Coalition’s failure to roll out an effective vaccination program puts us all at risk. There is clear evidence that people who have been vaccinated are much less likely to need hospital treatment or to die from COVID.
Compulsory vaccination implies that anti-vaxx views or vaccine hesitation is the main problem when it is clear that it is the massive bungling of the program by Morrison’s government that is to blame.
According to the government’s plan in February, all aged care workers (and other frontline health staff) were meant to be vaccinated by the end of March.
Morrison is waving the big stick at aged care workers now to cover up that the vaccination teams sent into aged care homes were instructed not to vaccinate staff.
The government said it would pay aged care staff to take time off for jabs but is giving the pitifully small amount of $30 per worker directly to aged care bosses, with no guarantee that it would be passed on.
Morrison has sent hugely contradictory messages on vaccines for months—first that “it’s not a race”, then that AstraZeneca was not as safe as Pfizer and people should wait, then that anyone who refused AZ was part of the problem, then saying plans had been replaced by vague “horizons”, and now that Australia is going for vaccine gold.
Many workers get an annual flu shot at work. But there’s been little attempt by federal or state governments to use that model to urgently deliver vaccinations in workplaces such schools, supermarkets or distribution centres.
No wonder that many people have held back from getting AZ, even though it’s now widely available, or from getting a jab at all, even though there are currently 3 million doses available each week.
A substantial minority of the Australian population is still hesitant about getting vaccinated—and most are not “anti-vaxxers”.
Researchers at the Australian National University reported in March that “59 per cent would definitely get the vaccine, 29 per cent had low levels of hesitancy, 7 per cent had high levels of hesitancy and 6 per cent were resistant”.
Many mistakenly believe that COVID vaccines are still untested and unsafe.
The cousin of Aude Alaskar, the 27-year-old Iraqi refugee who died in Sydney this week, said Aude was not an anti-vaxxer but was concerned about the possible side effects and “was just waiting to see” if any dangers emerged.
“He was young, and it’s my understanding he wanted to see what long-term effects there were—he doesn’t have children yet, but would it affect them?”
In any case, access to the AZ jab was belatedly opened to his age group only as Sydney’s lockdown began at the end of June.
People who are hesitant need accurate information in their own language and from people they trust.
The lessons from the earlier roll-out of COVID vaccinations in Indigenous communities show the way.
Dr Tanya Schramm is a GP and a Palawa woman. She told newsGP: “Be open to actually ask your patients what are their direct concerns, and being able to provide them with really clear, concise answers … Get that message out there in a very culturally appropriate way. It just takes people a bit of time.”
Compulsory vaccination reinforces bosses’ power and adds another authoritarian weapon to the arsenal of governments already riding roughshod over civil liberties.
As one SPC worker told The Age: “I have no choice but to be vaccinated now and it’s quite sad because I wanted to do it under my own steam, sit back and wait for more information because I am genuinely scared.”
Another said the move felt like “a slap in the face” and some of his colleagues now wanted to leave the company. “They went straight to the media and then we found out at the same time as the public,” he said.
The move potentially puts workers’ jobs at risk. In the US, media giant CNN this week fired three workers for coming to the office unvaccinated.
Unions need to encourage vaccinations, calling for mass jabs in the workplace with paid vaccination leave and sick leave for all workers, including casuals.
But they also need to defend workers who are hesitant, those who decline vaccination on doctor’s advice, and those who cannot access a jab because the supply is too low.
Matt Journeaux, acting federal secretary of the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union, said while he was pro-vaccination and encouraged members to get the COVID-19 jab, vaccinations were a personal choice and SPC had taken matters “a step too far”.
Andrew Dettmer, national president of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, which covers many SPC workers, told The Age that the company had failed to consult with workers and its November deadline was unrealistic.
“Some working people are still not eligible or otherwise able to access the vaccine.” Barring unvaccinated workers from worksites discriminated against those with health concerns that prevented them from being vaccinated, Dettmer added.
Meanwhile the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) is strongly encouraging aged care nurses and carers to get the jab but is concerned that mandating vaccinations for the aged care workforce could be a “political decision, not a health decision”.
According to the ANMF, there is still ongoing confusion and still no guarantee of special paid leave to assist aged care staff get their vaccinations.
“The Morrison Government’s promises for aged care just keep coming, but at this stage, there are more questions than answers,” said ANMF federal secretary Annie Butler.
“So far, the vaccine roll-out in privately-run aged care facilities has been an absolute shambles. To protect workers, elderly residents and the wider community, we need guaranteed access to vaccines for all aged care workers and paid leave to support that access and management of any reactions they may experience.”
Compulsory vaccination decisions by governments and bosses don’t solve the problems faced by essential workers, especially casuals, who are at greatest risk.
Blaming “hesitant workers” or allowing bosses to make vaccines compulsory only creates divisions between vaccinated and unvaccinated workers, when the real enemy is Morrison and greedy bosses who put profits before COVID-safe workplaces.
We need a united fight to turn casual roles into permanent ones with security and sick pay, to give workers and their families information in their preferred languages and from trusted sources like doctors or union officials, and to win mass vaccination hubs in workplaces with paid time off to take the jab and recover from side effects.
By David Glanz