Letters & Opinion

‘Join the Assembly Line or Else’ Short Reflection on Mandatory Vaccination

Rahym Augustin- Joseph (Mr.)

I’ve stayed away from penning my perspectives on mandatory vaccination policies and prescriptions across the region in its various formulations, shapes and forms. I’ve found myself however, debating in the Ecco chamber, the need for public education and awareness amidst growing disinformation and cynicism as a precursor to these mandates. However, the recent News Item by MBC Television on 13th October entitled ‘Out of Work for Refusing to take the Jab does the Labour Act support their appeals for Severance Pay?’ attached here https://youtu.be/Ezgm4aaPINY has caused me to pen a short reflection on the mandatory vaccination policy, public education, the manner in which these ‘defiant’ workers of  Northern Assembly were asked to fall in the assembly line or be sent home and the comments by the Labour Minister on the abovementioned.

It is no secret that as the world attempts to grapple with the onslaught of the pandemic, governments and businesses continue to become frustrated with the non-compliance of citizens to voluntarily take the vaccine, albeit without the necessary robust public education campaign to root this necessity in the hearts and soul of the people as opposed to within the external narrow confines. The public education that I speak about is not two second testimonials and advertisements which are clearly insufficient if we use vaccination rates as our criterion. However, robust and comprehensive national dialogues which allow people to share their concerns and perspectives on the vaccine should be employed. In every village, community and city and in the lengths and breadths of this country. The tools of persuasion must be utilized [one which the Caribbean politician has mastered during the election campaigning period]

This need for public education was put in sharp focus when I heard some of the sentiment’s shared by some of the workers as their rationale for not taking the vaccine. The workers basically said that they have not been convinced to take the vaccine because ‘Take the vaccine you may die, don’t take it you may die, so I prefer not take it.’ Last time I heard something like that, it was someone trying to convince me of their non-compliance to living life responsibly as they never know when the time is nigh.

Of course, you may say as I would, using the same logic, that, it is better at least take it and die than don’t have it and die. But it showed that our messaging has not been working, as the workers clearly did not understand that the purpose of the vaccine has never been and will never be to eradicate your ability to contract the virus. Rather, it will reduce the severity of your illness. It is in taking the vaccine that you may not die and just like seatbelts and cricket helmets, the vaccine is meant to reduce the risk of death and serious injury. Moreover, it is our collective efforts through vaccination which will allow us to enjoy the ‘pre-COVID’ world as we would be creating a country which is protected and immune from COVID-19. Therefore, our messaging should be aligned with that view in addition to the scientific knowledge at our disposal. But this messaging never occurred as the news report noted that, management only offered to have people come in to speak about the vaccine. Only offered, as opposed to summoning them to an assembly where there would be conversation and not termination. A key part of governance is knowing your people and understanding what is most treasured among them, so as to ensure that this among other things are packaged in a persuasive way to appeal to our common sense of humanity.

I worry about the timespan of the mandate as 30 days seems wholly insufficient unless there is a preferred vaccine that is proposed by the Management which falls within this timeline. I believe a longer period could have been utilized.

It is regrettable that is so easy to create and apply these mandatory vaccination mandates as with rising unemployment rates, businesses are almost guaranteed new workers who will comply with these mandates without any opposition as businesses seem to now be replacing interviews with vaccination certificates. But I also worry about the wider labour democratic environment, where our expediency has caused us to neglect dialogue and conversation in the name of immediate profit. There must be a formula where the two can coexist.

Much of the cynicism and distrust for vaccines are rooted in our disavowal of the West and accentuated because of the emergence of social media with the sharing of videos, pictures and information. We must find a way [public education] to dig our people form this pit as social media among its benefits of connecting people provides a divisive tool for the spreading of disinformation. These are realities that we must confront and deal with by employing massive digital literacy and getting people to discern truth from fiction. This may be one of our biggest challenges in the 21st century. It is also interesting how many of our people because of the medical acumen and diplomacy displayed by Cuba, that they are more comfortable with the provisions of vaccines from Cuba than other countries. The notion therefore of ‘the only good vaccine is the one accessible to you’ finds no resonance among those who prefer vaccines from Cuba.

In relation to the severance payment issue, I’m not certain that the employees breached the employment contract or any other provision under Section (162) ‘Non-Entitlement of Redundancy Pay’ of the Labour Code to disallow them from recovering severance payments. I’m not sure that the contractual obligations envisaged non-compliance with COVID-19 vaccine and other related matters as grounds for termination. However, I’m aware that employers have a duty to ensure that their work environment is safe and it is a valid case to make that vaccination provides that element of safety. Similarly, legislatures have the power to mandate vaccine as our freedoms are subject to the greater good, safety and well-being of all. Your right to do something is only right if it does not infringe on someone else’s right.

I’m also interested in the actions of the Minister of Labour, Dr. Virgina Poyotte, as to the posture of the government in light of this growing trend beyond providing their philosophical viewpoint that, they [the government] will not mandate vaccines for people of Saint Lucia.

It would be interesting to see whether the Minister will be the one to mandate severance payment in the 21st as there is legislative scope for it under the legislation. It is also a development to watch in relation to the judgement of the Labour Commissioner.

It would also be interesting to see, based on the outcome of this matter, whether the maximum fine of $10,000 XCD for failure to comply with the rulings of the Labour Commissioner is deemed sufficient and whether it provides opportunity for employers to subvert the payment of severances because the fine may be cheaper. Maybe a formula which can factor in the payment which was due when the order was not complied with can be utilized in further discourse.

For now, I wait to see whether the Labour Commissioner as well will fall in the assembly line or whether the Minister who has vowed to protect the rights of workers also fall in the assembly line.

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