Unions will continue to support workers who push back against employers mandating Covid-19 vaccination, and have urged consultation before the implementation of “no jab, no work” policies.
As the Australian Medical Association calls for mandatory vaccination for all healthcare workers, police forces in New South Wales and Queensland mandate vaccinations, and major employers including Telstra, Qantas, Virgin Australia and SPC consider their own mandates, unions are caught in a bind: supporting the rights and choices of individual workers, but knowing that boosting the national vaccination rate is pivotal to resuscitating the economy.
“We encourage all Australians who have access to the vaccine to get it as soon as possible,” the Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary, Sally McManus, said.
“Essential workers and frontline health workers are exposing themselves to risk every day and working families continue to suffer job and income loss because of lockdowns.
“Public health officials have mandated vaccinations in several sectors and we accept those decisions, they are the medical experts. However, in many parts of the country inadequate supply continues to be a significant issue.”
The council’s policy is essentially that it will support vaccination when it has been mandated by the federal government as a result of health advice, but is cautious about employers implementing plans for their own businesses.
This is especially the case when there has been little consultation; the union is concerned by the approach taken by Qantas, which they say did little more than survey staff before mandating vaccinations, but commended Virgin Australia, which has taken a more careful approach.
“Employers that are considering mandates for health and safety reasons must consult workers and their unions,” McManus said.
“Work health and safety law requires employers to engage in discussions before decisions are made, to identify Covid-19 risks at work and discuss how these can be managed, including through the use of vaccines, and to work together to address any issues raised by workers.”
Where can I get vaccinated in Australia?
The majority of Australians aged 18 and over are now eligible for a Covid vaccination if they are willing to consider the AstraZeneca vaccine, and provided they do not have a history of specific health conditions.
In addition to the government’s official eligibility checker, which lists some clinics near your location which might have vaccination appointments available, there are a number of other helpful resources that can help you to find somewhere that has appointments open.
You can find our comprehensive guide to finding a vaccination appointment here.
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The employment and industrial relations lawyer Josh Bornstein said the legal issues for employers were two-fold: making sure a direction to get a vaccination was lawful and reasonable, and ensuring they were maintaining a safe workplace.
In workplaces where there was a high risk of infection, courts and tribunals would often uphold the right of an employer to mandate vaccination for employees, Bornstein said, if the employer properly consulted with staff, and a vaccine was available to those staff (including any with special needs).
“The second legal issue is that an employer has an overarching legal duty to provide a safe workplace to its employees,” Bornstein said.
“If an employer neglects to take reasonable steps to ensure its employees are safe, and as a result of that they become sick or die, then the employer may face multiple legal actions.”
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A colleague of Bornstein’s was also providing legal advice in relation to an entirely different workplace matter, he said: an employee at a Tweed Heads cafe being fired for being vaccinated.
In an email sent to members on Tuesday, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance made clear that while it strongly advised workers in the industries it represented to be vaccinated, it would deal with any complaints about mandates on an individual basis – even if they came from “conscientious objectors”.
“If you object to being vaccinated on principle, MEAA will professionally and respectfully represent your interests,” according to the Covid-19 vaccination and your rights at work bulletin sent by the union.
“We know that all cases have to be dealt with on their own facts. You should contact MEAA for assistance if you think a direction to be vaccinated is unacceptable and/or compromises your welfare.”
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On Tuesday, the NSW police announced that all staff must have received one dose of vaccine by 30 September and be fully vaccinated by 30 November.
Evidence of vaccination status will be entered into police rostering systems to safely manage deployment.
“We know that the Delta strain of this virus poses a significant risk to police officers and staff,” the deputy commissioner, Karen Webb, said.
“Each day we ask our officers to front up and perform their vital policing functions in this extremely challenging environment.
“The only way to face that risk is by ensuring that Covid-19 vaccines are administered to all staff.”
Telstra has announced plans for about 8,300 of its workers to be vaccinated, joining Qantas, private health operator Healthscope and food processor SPC in mandating inoculation.
Last month, the Fair Work Ombudsman issued new advice for employers considering making the Covid vaccine mandatory for workers, setting out a four-tier system to determine when such an order would be reasonable.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has resisted employer calls for clearer public health orders requiring vaccination in at-risk industries, saying to do so would create a mandatory vaccination program “by stealth”.