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Lynette Seebaran-Suite

Former Chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), Lynette Seebaran-Suite, said a vaccination policy at the national level or the workplace could be developed for all employees both current and new, to mandate vaccination. However, she warned, a mandate was not a law and could not force employees to take a vaccine, but only use “strong persuasive methods,” to encourage them.

Her comments came following claims by some workers that they were being forced by employers to get vaccinated, with the Employers Consultative Association and even Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi weighing on the issue.

Seeberan-Suite said if any such policy were to be introduced, the mandate should comprise three key elements—education, incentives, and alternative accommodation where genuinely necessary.

“It means that you’re going to be trying your best to encourage workers to take the vaccine. You can incentivise them, you can engage in public education, you can engage in persuasive techniques, but you cannot physically force them to take a vaccine or you cannot fire them if they do not take the vaccine, “she stressed.

This especially applied to employees already in the workplace whose terms and conditions did not include such a policy.

Seebaran-Suite specified what should require alternative accommodation of an unvaccinated employee.

“You may want to make exceptions for persons with genuine religious reasons who cannot take vaccines or people who have been advised by their doctors not to take the vaccine.”

Such employees she said may have to continue working from home or be placed in specific areas in the workplace that would not put other workers at risk.

She said, however, if these accommodations were at a cost to the employer, the basis for not being able to take the vaccine should not be a result of conspiracy theories.

“The vaccines have micro-chips in them, it can’t be that nonsense,” she quipped.

More importantly, she said, employees in the at-risk groups should make it a priority.

“People who have diabetes and people who have non-communicable diseases, they are encouraged to take the vaccines, because when they do get COVID, they are at greater risk of falling ill.”

Currently, no law in Trinidad and Tobago enforces vaccination in the workplace and Seebaran-Suite said it may not become one.

“The only way that persons can be forced to take a vaccine is if a law is passed in Parliament to that effect and that is very, very unlikely.”

Seebaran-Suite said employers might want to engage in education drives and campaigns at their workplaces to encourage all employees.

DOMA: What about the family?

Meanwhile, President of the Downtown Owners and Merchants Association, Gregory Aboud, said the issue of workplace vaccination had placed employers and even the Government in a perplexing space.

“On one hand we are being lectured about people’s rights and what we can and cannot force them to do vis-à-vis, the vaccine, but on the other hand, there is no discussion taking place about workplace safety,” Aboud queried.

While Aboud understood people do have rights, he said it was rather disappointing, that in the face of such a dilemma employers were still obligated to provide a safe working environment.

“Many of those who are concerned about people’s rights should also be conscious of the science which suggests, that unvaccinated people are more liable to take the disease home to their own families.”

He said forget about what they (unvaccinated employees) would and would not do in the workplace, as the greater concern was the safety of the family unit and therefore the family unit itself, should be trying to encourage all members to take the vaccine.

Stigma versus safety

Speaking on the issue, of stigmatisation in the workplace for unvaccinated employees, the president of the Supermarkets Association of T&T (SATT), Rajiv Diptee, said it was not a matter of stigma, but safety.

“I think it’s very irresponsible for people who work in frontline situations to not take the vaccine. You are in a high density, high movement, and high interactive workplace,” he said.

Diptee who kicked off his association’s vaccination drive for members on June 8, believes it was inevitable that vaccination in the workplace, would become a requirement.

Guardian Media also contacted the Minister of Labour, Stephen Mc Clashie for comment. In response to our question about a national vaccination policy, Mc Clashie sent this response via WhatsApp.

“An industrial relations policy on workplace vaccination has been identified as critical and the Industrial Relations Advisory Committee, (IRAC), a tripartite plus committee, established under

Section 80 of the Industrial Relations Act, Chapter 88:01, commenced work towards the development of a paper on the considerations surrounding workplace vaccination and will

submit it shortly.”

He said in developing such a document it must be recognised that like the COVID-19 pandemic, such a policy was also novel and required assessment of a large volume of new information not just from the industrial relations setting, but also public health, human rights, and other legal considerations.

Mc Clashie said the issue of stigma and discrimination, would also be addressed in the IRAC’s document.