Debate over vaccination should be driven by employee wellbeing

While the debate rages on in many countries if COVID-19 vaccination should be mandatory, all considerations should be people-driven.
By: | September 10, 2021

As governments in Asia and beyond continue to readjust their policies and approaches to flexibly respond to the pandemic, remote work has continued to be the predominant arrangement in many countries, whether through choice or circumstance.

While that may be the case, many organisations are beginning to formulate hybrid work models that will eventually require some, if not all employees, to return to the workplace. That in turn, will raise a pertinent question: Can employers mandate employees to be vaccinated before allowing them back to the workplace?

According to Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM), employers should not make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory, and employees who decline vaccination should not have their employment terminated on the ground of declining vaccination.

While people working in certain employment settings where there is higher risk of COVID-19 infection can be required by their employers to get vaccinated, employees who decline vaccination should be redeployed to lower risk settings or be asked to cover the difference in coronavirus-related costs incurred by them compared to vaccinated employees, as opposed to termination.

Singapore’s stand on non-compulsory vaccination is echoed in neighbouring Malaysia, where speaking earlier this year, Shamsuddin Bardan, Executive Director of the Malaysian Employers Federation, said employers who force their staff to get COVID-19 vaccinations are essentially “violating human rights.”

Other countries in South-East Asia, however, are adopting a decidedly different approach. Indonesia, for instance, made vaccination compulsory for citizens as early as February this year, while Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen warned employees in the public service and armed forces that they would be removed from their jobs if they refuse to receive their COVID-19 vaccinations.

However, it is developments in the US that could potentially set a precedent for many countries to follow. In July, New York mayor Bill de Blasio called on the city’s private businesses to require their employees to be vaccinated. This comes after new guidance issued by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission notes that employers can legally require COVID-19 vaccination for employees to re-enter the workplace and can provide incentives to encourage employees to get a shot.

For those who advocate for mandatory vaccination for workers, the reasons are clear. Besides creating a safer work environment, such a move will assuage the uncertainty and fear employees may have in being told to return to the workplace with unvaccinated colleagues.

Coercion, through the threat of termination, however, is unlikely to be the answer moving forward, and organisations will be ill-advised to embark on this path. In June this year, a New Zealand border staff who was dismissed for refusing to get the COVID-19 jab brought her case to the country’s Employment Relations Authority.

Clearly, the legal ramifications of terminating employees who refuse to be vaccinated are an unwanted distraction for organisations as they attempt to recover and rebuild from the pandemic. Instead, it is more important than ever before to maintain clear lines of communication where HR leaders can begin to understand the underlying reasons why employees may be reluctant to be vaccinated.

Employees should be encouraged to voluntarily be vaccinated and be supported through measures such as granting time off. Organisations can also launch education programmes that highlight vaccine safety and efficacy and more importantly, by showing employees that their safety and wellbeing are the top priority, organisations can alleviate many of the fears and concerns that are holding back many people from being vaccinated.

Naturally, not all employees will be convinced, and there might be a proportion who will continue to decline, alongside the group of employees who cannot be vaccinated because of underlying health issues.

Rather than exercising the right, or lack thereof, to terminate employees on the basis of non-compliance when it comes to vaccinations, organisations will be better served to use dialogue and open communication to find solutions that will benefit the organisation and their employees in the long-term.