The Ministry of Labour and Social Security has advised that Jamaica's current laws do not support mandatory vaccination against COVID-19 for workers. This, despite concerns arising from employers as well as employees in relation to the safety of all stakeholders as the country continues to grapple with the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“I have come across employers that are adamant that they have a role to protect their employees, especially the labour-intensive organisations... and workers have also complained to the ministry that they are fully vaccinated and their employer does not believe in vaccination and they feel exposed, so it's both sides of the coin, really,” said divisional director of Industrial Relations and Allied Services at the Ministry of Labour Gillian Corrodus. According to Corrodus, mandatory vaccinations have not been promoted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) whose standards highlight that such a position would largely depend on national regulatory frameworks. However, she said if the Jamaican Government were to take that position, it would have to be in line with Convention 111 of the ILO, which speaks to discrimination. This would cover any talk about termination, and firing of an employee for not being vaccinated could be construed as an act of discrimination.
States choosing to have mandatory vaccination should make those decisions in the international context where there are accommodation and exceptions as required. Accommodation is in relation to persons who for medical reasons, etc, are unable to accept a vaccine or because of some religious reason can't accept it at a particular point in time, said Corrodus. Furthermore, she said the ILO has encouraged member states, including Jamaica, to ensure conversations are had between employers and employees in relation to whether or not a particular worker wants to be vaccinated before any disciplinary actions are taken. She said while safety remains paramount, decisions must also be made within the legal parameters. “There should be no policy that causes inequity in the employment relationship and we have to come from that perspective,” she said.
“We have to encourage the worker. If they are not willing to exercise that personal option of being vaccinated, then there can be some other option where that person is moved from the front line, for instance, to a less sensitive area, by agreement obviously, and also there can be a consideration for mutual separation,” she added. Corrodus, who disclosed that she had been fully vaccinated, said the ministry continues to encourage all individuals who are willing and ready to be vaccinated to get the jab which offers the best protection against the virus. She said the ministry does understand that some peeople continue to be fearful about the vaccines, especially with misinformation circulating on social media.
“We have to look at COVID-19 as being in the family of contagious diseases. We have to determine if it's significant enough to cause separation from employment because the person is not willing to be vaccinated. What I would suggest is that the alternate options would have to be mandated if the employer believes that the exposure to its clients and other workers is significant,” she reasoned.
Among those options, she said, would also be the wearing of masks and physical distancing, adding that failure to adhere to these could provide an employer with grounds for dismissal.
“Those could lead to termination, but at this present point we have not made vaccinations mandatory so it is not a breach if a worker does not choose to get vaccinated at this point…. We also have to consider that if you mandate vaccinations and persons are not able to access the vaccine, that also presents a problem,” said Corrodus. Within the private sector, more than 13 companies have already taken on the task to organise vaccination activities for staff members and their families. The Health and Wellness Ministry hopes to increase that number in collaboration with the Private Sector Vaccine Initiative.