Sun | Dec 5, 2021

Jab or jump!

Gov’t blamed for vaccine mandate confusion in workforce

Published:Tuesday | September 7, 2021 | 12:10 AMTanesha Mundle/Staff Reporter
David Wan, president of the Jamaica Employers’ Federation.
David Wan, president of the Jamaica Employers’ Federation.
Michael Hylton, QC, says the Government must consider the consequences of pushing through a vaccination mandate.
Michael Hylton, QC, says the Government must consider the consequences of pushing through a vaccination mandate.
Mauvett Waite, lecturer of The University of the West Indies' School of Nursing, administers the vaccine to Chantell James at the Jamaica Co-operative Credit Union League (JCCUL) voluntary drive, during which more than 300 credit union employees and their
Mauvett Waite, lecturer of The University of the West Indies' School of Nursing, administers the vaccine to Chantell James at the Jamaica Co-operative Credit Union League (JCCUL) voluntary drive, during which more than 300 credit union employees and their families took the COVID-19 jab.
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When major sign manufacturer Caledonia Outdoor Advertising made an about-turn in April on a termination threat to employees who refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19, the reversal was hailed as a victory for the workforce and a feather in the...

When major sign manufacturer Caledonia Outdoor Advertising made an about-turn in April on a termination threat to employees who refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19, the reversal was hailed as a victory for the workforce and a feather in the cap of the Ministry of Labour, which condemned the action.

Five months later and despite Prime Minister Andrew Holness’ repeated assurances that the Government has no plans to mandate COVID-19 vaccination, the implementation of lockouts by some of its agencies has sent mixed signals.

The policy incoherence has been called out by labour experts, with business leaders uncertain about how they should broach the issue with workers and legal pundits divided on its constitutionality.

Both the constabulary and the army have imposed vaccination mandates for certain promotions and training regimens, arguing that close contact was a public-health risk.

That has caused security personnel in both forces to bristle at the restriction, with chairman of the Police Federation, Corporal Rohan James, disclosing that an undisclosed number of cops have indicated their intention of resigning.

That sort of inconsistency has left many bosses in limbo, says David Wan, president of the Jamaica Employers’ Federation (JEF)

Lead From front

Wan has called for the Government to lead from the front in informing workplace policy.

“If they came out and say people in a contact position with the public must be vaccinated, others on a case-by-case basis, it would help. Whenever Government puts out a policy or regulation, it always helps us to formulate,” Wan told The Gleaner on Monday.

Wan said that the JEF has not arrived at a uniform position on workplace vaccination but has engaged in consultations with trade unions and business associations to find common ground.

The JEF president has warned that the JEF is not in support of a mandatory vaccination policy for workers, suggesting that social problems could arise.

That allusion to resistance and, perhaps, upheaval is likely one of the considerations at the forefront of the mind of the prime minister, whose councillors will soon have to face voters in local government elections and might suffer the consequences of an unsavoury diktat.

Bluntly, he might stoke the wrath of the public that saw his St Vincent and the Grenadines counterpart, Ralph Gonsalves, being stoned in August.

“The JEF is suggesting that in the workplace if you are unvaccinated, you should be required to continue wearing your mask and be tested periodically so that we can confirm you not carrying the virus,” said Wan, noting that who foots the bill for PCR or antigen tests was still being debated.

It appears that revolt so close to an election cycle – and in the heights of a third wave of coronavirus infections – may have accounted for the administration’s vacillation on vaccinations in schools. First, teachers who refused to be inoculated were told that they might have to undergo regular testing and have differentiated remuneration. Then there was silence.

Students who got their shots would be cleared for face-to-face classes by mid-October. Then the Government changed tack, saying 65 per cent take-up would trigger the green light.

It is that confusion that has left private-sector entities to their own devices, with some implementing vaccine policies, with severe consequences.

Isratech Jamaica has ordered its workers to either get vaccinated or submit proof of a negative COVID test every three days.

A joint statement by the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica and several business and trade union groups suggested that they rejected compulsory vaccination - except in undeclared “specific and extenuating circumstances”.

Wan said one such instance might be where a company’s client insists that its continued patronage would require vaccine compliance from its partners.

However, constitutional expert Michael Hylton, QC, believes that a vaccination mandate would breach an individual’s right to privacy.

“But the question is going to be whether Government could satisfy a court if necessary that the breach was demonstrably justified.

“I think that they can, I think the medical evidence is such that they can, the risk to the country, not just to the citizens, but to the country, from the point of view of hospitals, nurses, and doctors, and so on is sufficient to justify that,” Hylton said.

Hylton has urged the Government to consult with its legal adviser to arrive at a clear decision.

“What the Government needs to do is to look at precedents, look at what has happened in other countries and other courts, and look at what our courts have said in the past and say, based on the science available today and what has happened in the past in other matters, I think a court would approve this kind of mandatory regime ... .”

He continued: “As far as I know, there are no laws that allow it, but there are laws where there can be subsidiary legislation enacted and it’s not hard to do, but it has to be carefully thought out, especially in relation to the consequences.”

President of the Jamaican Bar Association, Alexander Williams, has insisted that no law exists prohibiting employers from enforcing mandatory vaccination for workers.

Efforts to get a comment from Attorney General Marlene Malahoo Forte were unsuccessful, as calls to her mobile phone went unanswered. She also did not respond to queries.

tanesha.mundle@gleanerjm.com