With government-level discussions about mandatory vaccination underway, expectations are building that more businesses will soon insist their employees and customers get the jab. The way in which employers approach the subject will be the key to navigating the tricky issue, says Agri SA’s labour expert.
Despite not being prioritised from the start of South Africa’s Covid-19 vaccination efforts, the agricultural sector has shown great enthusiasm in participating in the nationwide vaccine rollout.
The concern has since shifted to mandatory vaccination, and the importance of farmers and agribusiness owners engaging in meaningful consultations with their workers if they plan to introduce such a policy.
Expect businesses to become more strident
In her weekly open letter, business leadership South Africa chief executive Busi Mavuso wrote that she expected to see businesses becoming more strident in requiring vaccination both from their customers and employees.
Acknowledging that there could be much ideological contestation, Mavuso said, “Those who refuse to be vaccinated may well proclaim that is their right, but it is also the right of the rest of us to protect ourselves from the risks posed by unvaccinated people and to do whatever we can to reach the overall vaccination rates necessary for life to go back to normal.”
Guided by government directives
Lebogang Sethusha, Agri SA’s labour affairs administrator, says the legality of mandatory vaccinations in the workplace must be guided by the directions of the department of employment and labour.
She adds that employers need to foster an open and informative environment for workers to share their views and concerns, for both parties to find solutions suited to their workplaces.
“Employers need to be mindful…that mandatory vaccinations bring home the important balance between their legal obligation in terms of the Occupational Health and Safety Act – to provide and maintain a safe, healthy work environment without risk to employees – and workers’ rights to bodily integrity and religious freedoms and beliefs enshrined in our Constitution.”
Information and open conversation
Furthermore, Sethusha suggests that farmers be intentional in educating their workers while developing the policy.
The University of Johannesburg’s Human Sciences Research Council Covid-19 democracy survey states that vaccine hesitancy is mostly rooted in concerns about the vaccine’s efficacy, its side effects and long-term benefits. Employers must therefore make informative resources on the vaccine and its benefits available to their workers.
This, Sethusha explains, can take the form of educational posters or pamphlets placed in different areas in the workplace. Farmers can also make use of the national department of health’s short videos on the vaccine, which are available in all 11 official languages.
“Employers can also support workers by helping them to register on the electronic vaccination data system (EVDS) self-registration portal; also [by] freely transporting their workers to vaccination sites and informing workers on their right to receive a day off on the day of the vaccination.”
Avoid top-down decisions
Employers could further have vaccination champions in their workplace: staff members who have received the vaccine and partner with the employer to share their experiences with other staff members.
“Ultimately, the goal for employers should not be to make a top-down decision but to partner with their workers in educating them to make an informed decision. The employer must drive home the message that vaccinations not only protect their health but the health of their families and farming communities,” Sethusha explains.
Agri SA believes that the country’s food security will remain protected when the women and men responsible for Mzansi’s food supply are healthy and vaccinated.
They are calling on trade unions, employee organisations and traditional leaders to form part of the flow of information on the importance and benefits of the vaccine. This is important for agriworkers to receive and facilitate the flow of accurate information from their workplace into their surrounding communities.
Relevant questions and concerns
Colette Solomons, director of the Women on Farms Project, says the organisation explicitly and unambiguously supports vaccinations.
She says that because Covid-19 is a public health issue, mandatory vaccinations will become more of an issue for the country and all institutions and businesses.
“It will be essential for farmers, with the health department, to enable and facilitate education and access to vaccinations. Because of farm workers’ specific contextual realities, especially their physical location far from towns and clinics, everything must also be done to take vaccines to farms,” Solomons highlights.
This, as opposed to expecting workers to travel to towns at great expense to get vaccinated.
In the last few months, the Women on Farms Project have had various information and public awareness initiatives, including two health indabas where hundreds of farmworkers and dwellers could engage with health experts.
Solomons says, “We’ve seen an increase in women’s knowledge and an overall increase in their receptivity to the vaccination. Probably 99.9% of women we work with have now been vaccinated and have been actively promoting vaccinations in their families and communities.”
In contrast to Mavuso’s reference to the ideological contestation around vaccine rollout, Solomons says that they have found most farmworkers not to be ideologically opposed to vaccinations.
“But they have relevant questions and concerns, after which being answered, they’re happy and comfortable to have vaccinations.”
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