As more employers introduce strict protocols to treat with unvaccinated staff members, three major trade unions have written to the country’s business heads, requesting a meeting within one week to discuss vaccination in workplaces.
The letter, dated July 28, was sent to the American Chamber of Commerce, Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Commerce and the T&T Manufacturers’ Association.
In a release yesterday, the Joint Trade Union Movement, National Trade Union Centre of Trinidad and Tobago (NATUC) and the Federation of Independent Trade Unions and NGOs (FITUN) issued a copy of the letter and announced they had joined forces to address the issue on behalf of employees.
The letter stated, “We write on behalf of the three trade union federations in Trinidad and Tobago to request an urgent meeting with representatives of the business community to discuss the issue of vaccination in the workplace.”
The letter said the issue is one of extreme importance and should be addressed through meaningful dialogue.
“As responsible national bodies, we understand the challenge of balancing individual, institutional and national interests.”
The unions have suggested that a representative of the Cipriani College of Labour and Cooperative Studies facilitate the meeting, which they have asked for within a week of the letter’s receipt.
The letter was signed by NATUC’s general secretary Michael Annisette, FITUN president Joseph Remy and JTUM general secretary Ozzi Warwick.
The latest employer to mandate unvaccinated staff to take fortnightly PCR tests to prove they are COVID-free was bookstore owner Nigel R Khan.
In an internal memo which was leaned on social media, Khan told his staff they were at a heightened risk to the virus and its variants because of their engagement with the public.
“Effective 2 August 2021, all members of staff both engaging with the public and back line staff are duly encouraged to become vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus or subject themselves to a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test every fourteen (14) days, at personal cost.”
The first testing period will be 14 days after August 2, the memo confirmed.
Staff are also mandated to wear face masks and face shields, practice social distancing and bring their own hand sanitiser to keep on them at all times.
There was heavy criticism for the regulations on social media and the leaked memo came on the heels of another leaked memo sent by businessman and restaurateur Peter George to his staff on Thursday.
George outlined the requirements for unvaccinated staff to continue their duties at his six restaurants, stating all unvaccinated staff will be required to pay for and present a negative PCR test every two weeks.
However, Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of the West Indies, Professor Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, told Guardian Media yesterday that employers who mandate their employees to either get vaccinated or take fortnightly PCR tests at their own cost are justified in doing so.
Antoine said while employees do have a right to choose whether to get vaccinated, employers also have a responsibility to ensure they create a safe working environment for all their staff.
“The thing is, there is justification in law for employers to do that – it may well be challenged but there are reasonable grounds for them to do so,” Antoine said.
She said in similar cases adjudicated in other parts of the world, workers have found themselves on the losing end.
She said if the local matters were to go to court, she believes the employers’ actions would be found reasonable.
Antoine also said she supports vaccinations and had hoped the country would not have gotten to a point where regulations such as these have to be enforced.
“I had hoped that education and persuasion would work, but I actually think there is a good chance that if challenged, they (employers) could win this in court – this is what I’ve been saying from day one.”
She cited cases brought against the State challenging the border closure from March 2020 to July 16, 2021, which were all won by the State.
She sent out a message to the employees who may be affected by these new policies, saying, “You made your choice not to take a vaccine, there are consequences – the employer makes his or her choice as to who they want and how they want to protect others and you too, then I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that if you really don’t want to take it (the vaccine), then you must show you are COVID-free.”
Khan’s memo also includes a clause addressing positive COVID-19 cases among staff, stating, “In the event you contract COVID-19, your sick leave does not extend to cover the virus. This as such shall be treated as NO PAY absence on your records.”
This policy, however, could spell trouble for the bookseller, Antoine said.
“That one I think is probably not going to hold water in a court, I think that one if you are sick, you are sick, we talk about sick leave once you have a medical. I don’t think an employer could justify if someone is actually ill with COVID, just as they can’t justify any other illness – there is no difference with the illness,” she said.
Antoine said there may be issues arising out of mandatory quarantine for the virus that falls within a ‘grey’ area of the law. She said T&T’s labour laws also need to be updated to treat with issues arriving out of the COVID-19 pandemic.