Warning against mandatory vaccination policies in South Africa

 ·17 Jan 2022

The Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) has warned companies against introducing mandatory vaccination policies, which it says risks infringing the Constitutional rights of workers.

The Chapter 9 body raised concerns around a recent study that found that some Covid-19 vaccines may cause a small change to the menstrual cycle length – but that this change is temporary.

While health experts believe this finding is not clinically significant, the Commission cautioned businesses and various institutions against forcing employees to vaccinate and imposing harsh sanctions on them if they do not.

The Commission said it is aware that several companies in the corporate and retail sectors have introduced mandatory vaccinations in their workplaces, and many more may follow suit.

“The Commission is concerned that employees who do not vaccinate may have their contracts terminated by employers if vaccination mandates are allowed to continue without taking the workers’ human rights into consideration,” it said.

“The country’s retail sector employs a high number of young females as cashiers and cleaners, and many of them are not in a position to negotiate with their employers if they do not wish to vaccinate.”

While the Commission said it supported the goal of reaching herd immunity, it said that this should not be achieved by ‘trampling the basic human rights that are enshrined in the Constitution’.

“When scientists establish a connection between Covid-19 vaccinations and women’s reproductive health, such as menstrual cycles, many women may not be comfortable taking vaccines, due to possible long-term effects. These women’s wish to delay vaccinating should be respected in the context of our country’s human rights commitments.”

The Commission is also calling for institutions of higher learning – including universities – to afford the same respect to students and workers who may not wish to vaccinate.

“Due to our country’s legacy of oppression, economic inequality and limited access to information, many students and workers are not empowered to negotiate with big corporates and institutions. The Commission has long taken a commitment to promote and protect the sexual and reproductive health rights of girls, women, and men.

“It must be acknowledged that Covid-19 is a relatively new pandemic, and that scientists in South Africa and around the world are still working to assess long-term effects of vaccines. This is more critical for women, who have to manage menstrual health, contraception, and sexual reproduction, as part of their reproductive health.”

Decision expected by the end of January 

Health minister Joe Phaahla says the government has not yet taken a formal decision on mandatory vaccinations in South Africa, with deliberations still ongoing.

Addressing a media briefing on Friday (15 January), Phaahla said he was hopeful a decision on mandatory vaccination will be made before the end of January as vaccine uptake remains low. He added that the government’s main priority remains to vaccinate all adults, at least up to 70% coverage.

South Africa’s Constitutional Court is set to be one of the critical decision-makers around introducing mandatory Covid-19 vaccines in South Africa, with several groups announcing plans to approach the country’s apex court for clarity.

Partners at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) are expected to approach South Africa’s apex court for clarity around vaccine mandates in the coming weeks.

Addressing a Nedlac meeting on 7 December, Labour minister Thulas Nxesi said that the group is expected to approach the Constitutional Court for a legal declarator on vaccine mandates in 2022.

Nedlac has recommended that mandatory vaccinations be implemented in workplaces, while specific venues would only be accessible to those vaccinated. Gatherings, events and the hospitality sector are all expected to introduce mandates.

Read: Mandatory vaccine policies in the workplace: Here’s what employers and staff need to know in South Africa

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