Kgomotso Ramoenyane, Executive General Manager, Human Resources at Business Partners Limited.
Just over a year ago, the South African government launched a nationwide campaign to deliver the COVID-19 vaccine to its citizens through a phased approach. One year on, after relatively low uptake, and in an attempt to curb the spread of the pandemic and its potentially devastating impact on employees and the economy, big corporates such as Discovery and Sanlam set a precedent by implementing mandatory vaccination policies at the end of 2021. Several smaller companies followed suit, marking the beginning of a “trial-and-error” period that has highlighted both pros and cons for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and businesses across the board.
Initially, the majority of South African small businesses took a survivalist approach to the pandemic, finding ways to mitigate and navigate the challenges that were catalysed by COVID-19. But there’s been a shift from survival mode to adaptation, and for some that means taking a firm stance on vaccinations.
After taking a retrospective glance at how mandatory vaccination policies have been received by various stakeholders, I have compiled a list of pros and cons of implementing a formal vaccination policy:
- Restoring stability within the workplace: The pandemic ushered in an era of change and uncertainty that left employees feeling unsettled after many were compelled to adapt to remote working. The effects of this sudden transition led to feelings of stress, frustration and depression –this is verified by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) which reported a 133% increase in daily calls since the onset of the lockdown.
Workplace vaccination policies are as much about the physical protection of employees as they are about re-establishing a sense of order and a clear way forward.
- Protection and efficacy: The South African government issued a formal statement in May 2021, announcing that the COVID-19 vaccine proved effective in reducing both morbidity and mortality after a series of clinical trials. Nationally, it was declared that the vaccine rollout plan was aimed at achieving herd immunity.
It is vital for companies to use their policies to meet their employees halfway by making information on COVID-19 and vaccines widely available and accessible, by assisting their staff to register for the vaccine, giving them time off to get vaccinated and providing counselling and support.
- Economic growth: with more people vaccinated South Africa will achieve herd immunity. Even if people do contract the virus, they are less likely to experience severe symptoms, requiring less time off work. Productivity across the board increases resulting in more outputs and economic growth.
- An arguable case of human rights infringement: Within the context of South African law, vaccination policies exist at the intersection of four main instruments; namely, the Occupational Health and Safety Act 85 of 1993, the Labour Relations Act 66 of 1995, the Constitution of South Africa and the newly enacted Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA). Therefore, while a case can be made for the mass implementation of vaccine mandates in the interests of health and safety in the workplace, a counterargument advocates that mandatory vaccination policies violate several fundamental human rights, including the right of freedom and security of person as well as the right to privacy.
Implementing a policy that does not allow unvaccinated people to enter the workplace could lead to the isolation of a portion of the workforce who believe that their rights are being infringed upon. This isolation can cause division within teams, have a negative impact on staff retention, reduce morale and can be detrimental to company culture
- Negative impact on staff retention: Taking a firm stance on vaccination against COVID-19 is bound to stir up contrasting viewpoints and unfortunately, businesses risk losing key talent and valued staff members who may feel that their constitutional rights are being compromised in favour of the rights of the majority. Staff retention rates may therefore be negatively impacted.
- Increased risk of legal disputes: There is a heightened risk of impacted employees lodging disputes with the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) against employers. While the CCMA has upheld two recent cases of employee dismissal or suspension following their refusal to vaccinate or provide weekly COVID-19 test results, the cost of dealing with these legal disputes in terms of both time and resources may not be feasible, nor worth the risk, for many small businesses.
Whichever policy a business chooses to implement, transparency is absolutely crucial to avoid labour disputes. When a decision is taken to implement a new policy, it must be done in consultation with employees. At this early yet imperative stage, introducing these kinds of policies will set the precedent for the future.