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SA companies, institutions, do U-turn on COVID and vaccine mandates

An increasing number of South African companies and institutions are relaxing or dropping their COVID-19 restrictions, with Standard Bank and Old Mutual being among the big players who no longer have mandatory vaccination and testing policies for all workers.

Last month, Clicks and Dis-Chem also announced they would no longer demand employees be vaccinated.

Woolworths says indoor mask wearing is still a must for staff but “the company would no longer limit the entrance to our workplaces to either vaccinated persons or those presenting a negative antigen test”.

Standard Bank found itself in hot water for dismissing at least 40 employees for refusing to vaccinate, but released a statement on 16 July, saying it may re-employ the 40 dismissed employees. Both Standard Bank and Old Mutual said most of their workforce (each at more than 90%) were already vaccinated against COVID.

However, Standard Bank may not have scrapped its vaccination policy or committed to rehiring the fired workers of its own accord, reports Daily Maverick.

Sasbo, a trade union in the financial services sector, threatened to drag the bank to court if it didn’t scrap its vaccination policy. Sasbo also threatened court action if Standard Bank didn’t rehire the fired workers.

The bank bowed to this pressure, not only scrapping its mandatory vaccine policy and committing to rehiring fired workers, but it also stopped all disciplinary hearings for unvaccinated staff, all of whom are now being welcomed back to work.

Unvaccinated workers are also no longer required to undergo PCR or rapid antigen tests before they are permitted access to Standard Bank premises, the bank said.

“Unfortunately, we parted company with a number of unvaccinated employees after they declined the alternative of testing that was offered to them,” said Lungisa Fuzile, the CEO of Standard Bank’s South Africa operations.

“Since the withdrawal of the (mandatory vaccination) policy, we are engaging with them to explore re-employment opportunities, as we feel strongly this is the right thing to do.”

Sasbo, which represents about 73,000 members in the financial services sector, has welcomed Standard Bank’s decision to rehire fired workers.

A union official told Business Maverick it was now turning its attention to Old Mutual, which parted ways with an estimated 89 workers; others are undergoing disciplinary action. Like Standard Bank, Old Mutual scrapped its mandatory vaccination policy in June, saying that more than 90% of its workers had been vaccinated. But, unlike Standard Bank, the life insurer hasn’t committed to rehiring fired workers.

Sasbo has demanded that Old Mutual reinstate all fired workers and reiterated its warning of a legal challenge if it fails to comply.

The Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) has weighed in on the validity of vaccine mandates, finding – in one test case – that they are unlawful.

The CCMA said it had received at least 291 cases of workers dismissed for refusing to vaccinate from November the preceding year to date. Most of the cases were in the Western Cape.

CCMA director Cameron Morajane said: “From the 291 cases, nine of the awards were in favour of the employer, while another nine were in favour of the employee. The remainder of the matters are either still in process, have been abandoned by the referring party, or have been settled by the parties.”

Morajane said each case was arbitrated on its own merits, and no two cases were identical, hence, the varied outcomes in similar cases. Moreover, Morojane said the CCMA did not record referrals from the banking sector as they fell within the business sector and were recorded as one consolidated cluster.

“The decision the Commissioner takes is based on the arguments, evidence and merits of each case set before them. Each commissioner that issues an award does not bind another commissioner.”

However, as reported in MedicalBrief recently, SA's dispute resolution body has given two seemingly conflicting rulings on when companies can fire staff for ignoring vaccine mandates.

The CCMA ruled in May that a medical company could legally fire an employee without severance pay for refusing to be vaccinated.

But one month later, the commission ruled that the same company was wrong to fire another worker who refused to take the jab.

This week, Solidarity welcomed the decision taken by the University of the Free State (UFS) to finally scrap its vaccination policy, after it had threatened the university with a cost order in its ongoing court litigation with the institution.

PoliticsWeb reports that Solidarity had already brought a court application against the UFS’ mandatory vaccination policy on 12 January, and in June it threatened a cost order if the university did not amend its policy.

“It remains a pity that the university insisted on offering resistance to the way back to normality. The implementation of a mandatory vaccination policy was questionable in the first place. When the COVID-19 regulations were lifted at national level, but the UFS carried on with restrictions on its campus, it was clear the university was committed to restricting the constitutional rights of students and staff without any clear rationale,” Morné Malan, Solidarity’s head of communications, said.

Solidarity previously argued that of all places, the country’s universities should show South Africans what the pursuit “towards a world that is reasonable and normal should look like”.

In March, reports BizCommunity, the University of Cape Town announced that COVID vaccination would “be voluntary, rather than mandate it”, while Unisa spokesperson Victor Dlamini said there was no current policy that compelled staff and students to have the jab, but the university encouraged all stakeholders to be willingly vaccinated.

The University of Pretoria has never had a mandatory vaccine policy, although its proposal was that unvaccinated individuals would have limited access to certain high-risk areas or events, including participation in sporting activities, social events or visiting friends in residence.

And last month, reports News24, an organisation called Makhanda Against Vaccines abandoned its case fighting the implementation of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate at Rhodes University. About 98% of the student and staff at Rhodes is already vaccinated. Free the Children – Save the Nation also withdrew its bid to stop the government from vaccinating children. The group had launched an appeal after the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Saphra) authorised, in July 2021, a trial on children aged six months to eight years for the Sinovac vaccine.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, in the light of Standard Bank dropping its mandatory vaccination policy, the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) picketed outside the Sandton, Johannesburg, offices of the Discovery Group, reports IoL.

The ACDP said the picket was a demonstration of its solidarity with the employees Discovery dismissed for their refusal to vaccinate against COVID-19, and called for the company to reinstate them.

ACDP president Reverend Kenneth Meshoe said it was unconstitutional for the Discovery Group to force employees to vaccinate, and that “the vaccine should only be taken by those who want to vaccinate” .

But the company refuted the claims, saying it did not fire any employees for refusing to vaccinate, and that 98% of its workers had already been vaccinated.

It said it would continue to monitor the environment and clinical risk closely to review the risk before deciding whether it would scrap its mandatory vaccination policy.

“Discovery’s vaccination policy is premised on the principle of mutual respect and places a premium on public health imperatives, the constitutional rights of employees and the efficient operation of the business,” said Ronald Whelan, chief commercial officer at Discovery Health.

Whelan told Mail & Guardian the policy was being continued to provide the safest possible working environment for all employees.

Discovery was one of the first to advocate for and implement a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy last September, when the third wave was at its peak in South Africa, and implemented it from 1 January 2022 for local employees.

Whelan said Discovery “has no intention to change its COVID-19 vaccination policy at this stage”, for various reasons. One was that the COVID virus continues to be endemic in South Africa, with an ongoing spread of infection, albeit at much lower rates of infection than in prior waves.

Second, vaccines remain effective in protecting against severe disease and death even in the face of the BA.4 and BA.5 variants currently dominant in the country.

Whelan also said the risk of onward secondary transmission of COVID-19 was 68% to 72% lower from vaccinated people, so if vaccinated people became infected, they had a substantially lower chance of spreading the virus to others, especially in poorly ventilated high-risk settings.

The fourth reason for keeping the policy in place is that vaccination provides significant additive protection in people previously infected with COVID-19.

“People with prior infection who have been vaccinated are four times less likely to be re-infected than people who haven’t been vaccinated,” he said. Additionally, “significant uncertainty remains in relation to future variants and waves of infection”.

“The risk remains of a new variant emerging. The best way to mitigate this risk is to ensure everyone has the strongest possible wall of immunity to protect against potential future infection.”

 

Mail & Guardian article – Discovery sticks to its guns on mandatory vaccination policy (Restricted access)

 

IOL article – Fired Discovery Group employees protest in Sandton (Open access)

 

BizCommunity article – Has UCT’s mandatory vaccine policy been scrapped? (Open access)

 

Daily Maverick article – Corporate South Africa rehiring workers who refused to comply with Covid vaccination policies (Open access)

 

PoliticsWeb article – Court case forces u-turn in UFS vaccination policy –Solidarity (Open access)

 

News24 article – Covid-19: Organisation drops case fighting implementation of vaccine mandate at Rhodes (Open access)

 

See more from MedicalBrief archives:

 

CCMA victory for employee dismissed over vaccine refusal

 

Phaahla calls for scrapping of COVID masks, regulations

 

Groups drop vaccine legal suits

 

Staff vaccine mandates halted at Woolworths, Dis-Chem

 

 

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