Coronavirus: Workplace rules ‘a win for anti-vaxxers’

Council of Small Business ­Organisations of Australia chief executive Peter Strong. Picture: AAP
Council of Small Business ­Organisations of Australia chief executive Peter Strong. Picture: AAP

Small business has criticised new federal guidance on workplace vaccinations, claiming it “favours anti-vaxxers” and puts too much legal responsibility on employers and their staff.

The concerns came as the ACTU called for workers at high risk of exposure to COVID-19, ­including supermarket workers, public transport employees and teachers, to be given early access to the vaccine.

Labelling the Safe Work Australia guidance “not fit for purpose”, employers also called for clarity about the vaccine rollout schedule, urging the government to nominate proposed dates for different groups of workers. The SWA guidance says ­employers will be able to require customers and visitors to prove they have been vaccinated as a condition of entry to their premises.

SWA says it is unlikely a ­requirement for workers to be vaccinated will be reasonably practicable, while employees will generally not be able to refuse to come to work because a colleague has not been vaccinated.

Council of Small Business ­Organisations of Australia chief executive Peter Strong said the guidance was likely to cause legal uncertainty for employers and workers, with the meaning of “reasonable” having to be settled in court.

He said a member of staff who did not want to be near an unvac­cinated colleague might be stood down without pay if they refused to work. “That very much favours the anti-vaxxers,” he said.

Mr Strong said young staff should not have to be in a position where they are required t ask customers for proof of vaccination.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said while there was a need to publish workplace guidance before the rollout, the “current materials are not fit for purpose for small businesses”.

The chamber’s health and safety director, Jennifer Low, said the information was too focused on being technically accurate and addressing a range of complex questions. “Businesses, particularly small businesses, need ­clearer advice on what the law is and how it applies to their circumstances. Small business owners don’t have the cash reserves right now to pay for legal advice.”

She said all state and territory regulators needed to agree on a consistent approach to workplace vaccination requirements, as well as other safety requirements, so employers knew what to expect if an inspector turned up at their workplace.

“Second, we need to know the vaccine rollout dates for each group,” she said. “One group of employees might be eligible for vaccination in May, others in July.

Employers need to know the timeline so that they don’t feel pressured to make a rushed decision, and have the time to get communications and consultation with their workforce right.”

ACTU assistant secretary Liam O’Brien said unions would “fight to ensure that workers at high risk of exposure, such as supermarket, public transport workers and teachers, are given early access. It is vital that all ­essential workers are vaccinated as soon as possible.”