After initially threatening teachers who refused to be vaccinated with having to produce a full medical report or possibly facing redundancy or redeployment, the Department of Basic Education has announced, in the face of union and SA Human Rights Council interventions that it would seek to “accommodate” them through counselling and possibly isolating work spaces or “working from home”.
Sunday Times. reported hat teachers who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID on medical grounds to produce a detailed medical report, detailing why the vaccine would “ pose a health hazard” to them.
These controversial measures are contained in a circular dated 23 July signed by Basic Education DG Mathanzima Mweli. Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said 89% of the targeted 582,000 teaching personnel had been vaccinated. She added that between March 2020 and February this year, 1,678 teachers in public schools had died of COVID-related complications.
According to the circular, noted the Sunday Times, teachers who opt not to be vaccinated on medical grounds must provide a report indicating that they are allergic to the vaccine. “The department may refer such educators for further medical evaluation, which may include the health risk manager,” the circular says. It states that while it is not mandatory for educators to be vaccinated “the employer had put the necessary measures in place to ensure that teachers feel safe and are encouraged to take the vaccine”.
The circular states further: “After considering the educators' reasons for opting not to vaccinate such as medical, religious, constitutional, cultural or comorbidity, the employer reserves the rights to deal with such educators in terms of either operational requirements or incapacity procedures.”
This was despite earlier assurances from the department that it was not mandatory for educators to be vaccinated. Those teachers who refused to report for duty when schools reopened this week – regardless of whether or not they were vaccinated, or were incapacitated due to a comorbidity – “shall be subjected to the processes provided for in schedule 1 of the Employment of Educators Act”. According to a teachers’ union, this means they can face possible misconduct charges.
Cynthia Barnes, general secretary of the National Teachers’ Union, slammed the move. “The department is contradicting itself by saying vaccinating is not compulsory and at the same time forcing teachers to go for it,” she said.
Basic Education ministry looks at new options
However, yesterday Basic Education spokesperson Elijah Mahlangu told Newzroom Afrika that the department would “accommodate” and work with teachers who refused to get vaccinated for medical, constitutional, religious or cultural reasons. According to another TimesLIVE report, Mahlangu said the department was now looking at several options to keep working with teachers who are not vaccinated, with “letting teachers go” an absolute last resort.
“For medical reasons, teachers will have to submit a medical report to the department. The department has the right to use that report to make a decision on how teachers can be assisted by providing counsellors, and creating isolation spaces,” said Mahlangu. “For cultural and other reasons, counselling will be made available and we are going to look at their responsibilities to see if they can work from home.
The SA Human Rights Commission has urging people who have been threatened with losing their jobs or rented accommodation for refusing to have a vaccine to come forward. TimesLIVE reports that Gauteng commission head Buang Jones said they hoped this would get the ball rolling to determine the legalities around the issue.
“We are exploring all available legal options and would like to see how best we can address the situation with affected employees and the implicated employers,” Jones said yesterday. “This is an intervention that seeks to protect rights and hear the position of employers on this very important issue. We have received complaints from people who have been told they will be dismissed or evicted from where they stay if they do not take the vaccine. These are people who have serious misgivings about the vaccine and they have reached out to the commission.”
While the commission was planning to hear from employees opting not to be vaccinated and employers who need to deal with them, there have been calls for the commission to also hear from those with comorbidities exposed to the risk of infection by unvaccinated co-workers. Jones said the commission was gathering submissions and would announce the way forward.
Announcing the consolidated direction on occupational health and safety measures last month, Employment & Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi said: “ “Employers should find a reasonable resolution that accommodates all parties where employees refuse to be vaccinated for medical and constitutional grounds. The key principle of these guidelines is that employers and employees should treat each other with mutual respect. A premium is placed on public health imperatives, the constitutional rights of employees and the efficient operation of the employer’s business.”
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