Trade unions firm on vaccinations but against mandatory jabsSaturday, September 11, 2021
BY ALICIA DUNKLEY-WILLIS
THE island's trade unions have thrown their support behind the Government's national vaccination programme but has called out employers whom them say are dismissing workers and insisting on mandatory vaccinations, which they are staunchly against at this time.
Yesterday, Helene Davis Whyte, president of the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions (JCTU) and general secretary of the Jamaica Association of Local Government Officers (JALGO), told a press conference at the Jamaica Pegasus hotel in St Andrew, hosted by the health ministry, that trade union leaders were fully behind the thrust to vaccinate but not the efforts to terminate.
“We wish to also make it clear that the JCTU does not support mandatory vaccinations at this time, and is concerned about the apparent trend towards mandatory vaccination by some employers,” she said.
She said the JCTU, however, has noted with concern the increasing number of deaths and hospitalisations arising from what has been termed the third wave of novel coronavirus cases in Jamaica and the deleterious effect on workers due to unemployment and underemployment brought about by business closures, curfews, and lockdowns.
“We accept that vaccines are an important part of the measures to contain the spread of the virus and to limit hospitalisation; we accept that, while vaccines do not provide immunity, they do prevent severe illness, hospitalisation, and deaths, if one is infected with the virus,” she stated, noting that the JCTU was very concerned about the level of hesitancy and low take-up of the COVID-19 vaccines.
She said the JCTU, in discussion with its members, found that the hesitancy is “due in large part to the inaccessibility of the vaccines and inadequate information to combat the constant stream of falsehoods and half-truths being bandied about, particularly on social media”.
She said this is why the JCTU has partnered with the Ministry of Health to take the vaccines to workers at their places of work.
Responding to a query from the Jamaica Observer, the JCTU head said, while she was unable to say how many companies have taken this route, indications are that employers across the length and breadth of the island were leaning in that direction.
“That's one of the reasons why the private sector leaders, along with the JCTU, actually sat and discussed this issue, because we felt that it was important for us to have some kind of guidance to employers as to how to proceed in situations where you have employers who feel they should mandate the vaccines and where you have workers who are hesitant about taking the vaccines.
“So we recognise that's a real issue, but what we do not want, which is why we went the route of developing this advisory, is for there to be panic and fear because when there is panic and fear people react in ways that they would not normally act and we need to ensure that at this time we are very well reasoned in our approach to containing the spread of the virus,” Davis Whyte stated.
“We believe that at this point in time mandatory vaccination is not the way to go. In our advisory that we have developed we indicated that what needs to be done first and foremost is to engage with our workers, provide them with all the information, make sure there is accessibility because it is our view that, if you do that you would have broken the back of the resistance to the vaccine,” she added.
Addressing the issue of dismissals, she said, “Our view is that the legality of dismissing a worker for not taking the vaccine, especially in a situation where the worker's contract of employment would not have spoken to them having to take vaccines in order to either get employment or remain in employment. We think employers are batting on a very sticky wicket, in our view, in trying to whether dismiss workers or take action against workers who have decided not to take the vaccine.”
Kavan Gayle, president general of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) and executive member of the JCTU, commenting on the issue, said, “We are very cautious about mandating and we would have seen efforts made by some employers to complement that mandate with threats. We caution against it against the background that the State has not mandated and it is the State that really controls the provision of the vaccine, and so we find it very difficult where employers would be seeking to mandate when they have no control over accessibility of the vaccine.”
“So you can't mandate and you can't provide, and so we would urge employers there is no need at this time to be coercing your employees. It would be best to encourage and support and educate and enforce rather than seeking to apply a mandate when you have no control over provision,” he pointed out.
Gayle noted further that the consequences of such mandates would have the effect of causing numerous disputes, clogging up the Ministry of Labour and the Industrial Disputes Tribunal “which is already overburdened”.
At the same time, St Patrice Ennis, vice-president of the JCTU and general secretary of the Union of Technical, Administrative and Supervisory Personnel (UTASP) said any such mandates and dismissals would not stand up to scrutiny before the island's courts.
“The truth is that there is a process for dismissing a worker and that process is laid out in our labour relations code and nothing has changed where those are concerned. Moreover, the efforts now to dismiss a worker because of not taking a vaccine invites questions about constitutionality, human rights, and about our labour laws,” he argued.
“We would agree that these areas have not been tested in our court system, but we believe we stand on good grounds [as dismissing] a worker at this time [for not taking a vaccine] would not be in concert with our labor practices and laws,” he added.
And Clifton Grant, assistant general secretary of the JCTU and vice-president of the University and Allied Workers Union (UAWU), wading in on the discussion, said, “We are living in a society of law and order, workers also have rights, and no one should create a situation where you are forcing somebody to put something in their body. When we have a crisis like this…you can't do things to create another dispute and tension.”
“We have to take time out and be patient and educate the workers. Mandating and declaring and forcing workers to take the vaccine is not the way we should operate in a situation where we have a national crisis,” said Grant.
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