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Trade Unions Walking Vaccination Tightrope

By VOICE Reporter

Saint Lucia’s trade unions, like most in other Caribbean Community (CARICOM) nations, are straddling the thin line between advocating vaccinations against COVID-19 and opposing mandatory vaccination at workplaces.

Citing the right of individuals, the Trade Union Federation urges “There must be respect for the bodily immunity of each individual person.” To that effect, it urges that employers (private and public) avoid taking any action that will force individual workers to vaccinate against their will.

In a lengthy statement outlining its position on COVID-19 and the Related Vaccinations (published in The Weekend VOICE) the TUF outlined several positions that reflect a mix of the different views of workers with related concerns about vaccinations and supported the general intent of the health authorities to increase vaccination. But the TUF insisted encouragement should be only through “education”.

The TUF also advocated against almost any eventuality of employers taking actions requiring vaccination, describing any such action as alteration of their contracts or violation of established rights protected by international conventions.

The Federation also called for full consultation with trade unions and workers representatives before arriving at final decisions with implications for workers.

However, the statement noticeably avoided taking any position that any of its member-unions can or will disagree with, the common point being that there should be no mandatory vaccination. Some member-unions, however, have gone further in not just walking the tightrope, but actually offering employers a little way out in the COVID situation, without compromising workers interests.

The Saint Lucia Civil Service Association (CSA), for example, last week announced it and other unions representing government employees had agreed to defer payments of negotiated pay increases due for 2020-2022.

The CSA said the decision was taken “in good faith and on the understanding that the government would exercise prudence in its expenditure.”

The union also said it was “indeed unhappy to hear of the many irregularities in spending, amongst them being procurement of vaccinations by the State.”

The CSA didn’t mention, but was referring to the $7.3 million vaccine purchase scandal that left the Saint Lucia Treasury, Finance Ministry and Government unable to receive 100,000 vaccines paid for in advance in what was sold by the former government as a deal involving three governments, but ended-up in court action between the company hired to deliver and the company it contracted to supply.

Radical Investments Limited and Barbadian businessman Mark Maloney (in whose name it’s registered here) have reportedly repaid US $1 million (EC $2.71 million) of the original $7.3 million submitted by Saint Lucia.

But, against the background of claims the deal was not properly or carefully investigated before the agreement, the CSA statement ended with a warning to the new government.

As the VOICE reported last weekend, “The CSA urges the government to exercise due diligence in the management of the affairs of the State; and to ensure that monies owed to the state through irregular practices, should be properly accounted for and recovered, as these monies can go a long way in providing much-needed assistance to workers in the state.”

Unlike St. Vincent & the Grenadines, where trade unions formally affiliated with the major opposition party, joined an organized protest against COVID-related legislation outside parliament in Kingston on May 17, which resulted in Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves being hospitalized and flown to Barbados for emergency treatment after being wounded by a stone pelted by a protester, local trade unions are not affiliated to any political party.

But there’s also a growing but still minority view within the local trade union movement that the increasing efforts by employers to take actions to protect employees and customers against COVID  and save their businesses seems to escape the attention of some union leaders.

The Saint Lucia Industrial and Small Business Association (SLISBA) has called for mandatory vaccination to help keep small businesses open, while an increasing number of large businesses are also tilting in the direction of mandatory vaccination, if only to protect staff and customers.

The President of the Medical and Dental Association (SLMDA) Dr Merle Clarke, says the island’s doctors, in the main, support mandatory vaccination of frontline health workers, all or most of whom are represented by public service unions belonging to the TUF.

Prime Minister Philip J. Pierre and Health Minister Moses Jn Baptiste have both assured that the government has no intent to decree mandatory vaccination; and the PM last week also assured he has no intention to order lengthy lockdowns beyond weekends, as this would further harm economic recovery prospects.

Workers here are increasingly looking to their trade unions for guidance on how best to manage the dilemma of choosing between vaccinating on the job or not, or vaccinating to keep their jobs and save lives. But like everywhere else, the unions are also carefully walking the COVID tightrope trying to please all members, instead of taking positions the leaders fear can return to haunt them as the COVID nightmare continues.

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