New Zealand’s vulnerable workers could be left exposed by vaccine mandates
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Shani Alexander
Shani Alexander, Senior reporter

After deploying some of the strictest lockdown measures seen anywhere in the world, New Zealand’s government has expanded its vaccine mandate to cover 40% of the nation’s workers. However, with termination of employment a likely consequence for those who refuse the jab, there are fears vulnerable workers could be disproportionately affected by compulsory vaccinations.

In late October, the Labour government announced that workers in restaurants, gyms, bars, and hair salons must be vaccinated by the end of November. The move broadens the scope of previous mandates that only required front-line workers, such as healthcare professionals and teachers, to be vaccinated.

The government in Wellington is also expected to introduce electronic vaccine certificates to make it easier for workers to provide proof of vaccination.

“Vaccinations will be mandated for everyone who works in any workplace where a vaccine certificate is required for entry,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, adding that the mandate “will play a big part in helping to minimise the spread of the virus in the highest-risk venues by reducing the potential for covid-19 to enter the business in the first place.”

The government’s introduction of vaccine mandates has proven controversial due to New Zealand’s Bill of Rights, which provides protection from “medical or scientific experimentation” without a person’s consent. Meanwhile, misinformation from a vocal anti-vaxx movement has resulted in vaccine hesitancy among some New Zealanders.

Employers are likely able to justify their actions, including termination, if they can show that they had a genuine health and safety reason

Jim Roberts, a partner at Hesketh Henry in Auckland, says that while everyone should be entitled to make an informed choice on covid vaccination, New Zealand’s leaders and the nation’s legislation is fighting an uphill battle against misinformation on social media.

“People who may be genuinely hesitant, and suspicious of government messaging, cannot make informed decisions because there is so much misinformation,” he says. “Vulnerable people appear to get their information from sources that are not mainstream and seem to have a higher proportion of either hesitancy or strong anti-vaccination views.”

This, says Roberts, has a knock-on effect for those who do have strong arguments about not being jabbed: “People who genuinely should not have the vaccination because of their own health complications are not being heard at all; they are being smothered by the anti-vaccination noise.”

Businesses not covered by the government’s mandate are still required to carry out a risk assessment under the Health and Safety at Work Act. This requires organisations to evaluate and eliminate – or at least minimise – the risks of covid infection to their workers and customers.

Given the spread of the delta variant, workforce vaccination is seen as a tool many organisations could deploy to minimise the risk of infections. But in the struggle to keep workplaces safe, Roberts believes vulnerable people stand to lose out. “It is likely that unvaccinated employees, beyond the mandated workers, will lose their jobs,” he said, adding that these workers will be less employable and, potentially, more likely to contract covid-19.

“Employers are likely able to justify their actions, including termination, if they can show that they had a genuine health and safety reason for doing so that is supported by a comprehensive risk assessment,” says Roberts.

“That is the same for any other health and safety measure an employee refuses to participate in, for example, wearing personal protective equipment; participating in drug and alcohol testing; or wearing a seatbelt.”

The New Zealand government says employers will be required to provide paid time off for employees to get vaccinated and keep records of workers’ vaccination status. When mandated employees refuse vaccination, a new four-week notice period will apply for those whose employment is terminated.