With the festive season less than a month away, businesses are gearing up for the influx of tourists and locals that will flood to holiday destinations and entertainment establishments. Lately, tourists have added another checkbox to their usual list of holiday requirements for these businesses, and that is whether all or most employees are fully vaccinated and whether these businesses accept unvaccinated patrons. It comes as no shock considering that many establishments and governments in foreign countries have already decided to implement mandatory vaccination policies for employees and patrons alike, whilst prohibiting access to the unvaccinated.
Many tourists across the globe have expressed their concerns about the lackadaisical approach to vaccinations in South Africa and have opted to put their holiday plans on hold until they feel more safe and secure to visit our shores. Other tourists have said that they will only frequent establishments that are fully vaccinated and continue to have strict protocols in place. In July, the private sector was essentially tasked by the South African government to take the necessary measures in the workplace including mandatory vaccination policies where necessary, but the country has seen no enforcement, guidance, clarity or support by government whatsoever.
Following these directions that were issued by the Department of Employment and Labour in July, Health Minister Phaahla had recently indicated that the government does not intend to interfere with internal policies of independent and private institutions, including public health policies. It is no mystery then why employers feel like they are in a state of limbo, and why South Africa is at high risk for another lockdown and further economic hardship.
What is of peculiar interest is why the government is reluctant to exercise leadership in respect of mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations and workplace policies. Nevertheless, South Africa will soon be forced to take drastic measures when the fourth wave hits, similar to those presently seen in Austria and Germany. The Austrian government has issued a mandate imposing lockdown restrictions on unvaccinated people, severely limiting their right of movement to traveling for work, food shopping, or emergencies. Germany is set to follow Austria in this regard, with further measures being implemented such as entry restrictions for unvaccinated people at all private and public establishments such as bars and restaurants.
Despite the consensus by several law professors and experts, including the South African Human Rights Commission, that mandatory vaccination policies in the workplace will pass constitutional muster, the general fear amongst employers are the risks of labour law consequences in taking these measures. With foreign tourists due to be flooding to our shores shortly, it is imperative that the government takes measures to prevent the spread of the infection by tourists and further secure the health and safety of our local citizens and businesses. Currently, this unpopular task of leadership has been left to business owners, and whilst they may be tempted to take action, due consideration should be given to the potential risks or opportunities the business may face in doing so.
If lockdown restrictions have been the greatest risk on your list, then prepare for a paradigm shift. COVID-19 brings to the fore reputational risk as the greatest risk a business faces, alongside the loss of lives. If you push for mandatory vaccination policies in the workplace, you risk severe pushback, backlash and reputational harm to the business, considering the vaccination hesitancy amongst many South Africans.
The flipside of the coin is, not to implement any policy and risk a failure to create a safe and healthy environment, which carries with it severe penalties. Now add foriegn tourists to the mix and your reputational risks will tick up significantly. If your business does not meet vaccination demands, you will be avoided like the literal plague. Whilst some may believe that negative publicity is still publicity, it would hardly bode well if your business is seen by tourists as a COVID-19 risk.
A sophisticated, comprehensive and proactive approach to risk management is the first port of call in tackling this issue and could also be the only step necessary, if done correctly. Moreover, taking the wrong approach in this step could snowball into further issues and also make cooperation impossible going forward.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. Looking at this differently, it could be a prime opportunity for businesses to carpediem and use their vaccinated workplaces as a way to attract customers and beat competition, whilst equally supporting the COVID-19 vaccination campaign and expanding your corporate social responsibility influence. Several businesses in foreign jurisdictions have implemented mandatory vaccination policies and have seen a tremendous increase in business and clientele. But don’t forget the most potent method of them all: word of mouth. If your business ticks every checkbox of foreigners, they are most likely to recommend you as the go-to holiday destination. More than likely you would have noticed a complete change in consumer psychology where there has been a shift in focus to a more health and hygiene conscientious environment and they will be looking to businesses that share such an approach.
The safest route for businesses right now will be to implement voluntary vaccination policies and implement procedures to ensure the safety of its employees, customers and patrons. But steer clear of online hatchet-job policies or those lengthy and overcomplicated policies that are riddled with legal jargon and not fit for purpose.
Talk about policies all you want, but they are worth the paper they are written on if you take the wrong approach with your employees. Effective training and raising of awareness by a team of compliance experts and medical professionals that are well-versed on the topic of COVID-19 is key to effectively implementing such policies and procedures and mitigating such risks. Beware of incorrect, incomplete, or out-dated information being relayed, leading to additional problems. These policies should also not break the bank, so to speak. FluidRock encompasses all these values and we actively seek to achieve the betterment of society by creating hands-on fit-for-purpose solutions. It is worthless to just receive a drafted policy without also getting the necessary first-hand expertise to conduct preliminary risk assessments and implement and complete the project. We make sure that you have all the perks without the pain!
While the development of COVID‑19 vaccines has been an extraordinary success, vaccinating most of the global population is an enormous challenge, one for which gaining – and maintaining – public trust in COVID‑19 vaccines and vaccination will be as essential as the effectiveness of the vaccines themselves. Moreover, the experience with COVID‑19 will likely shape confidence in future vaccines making it even more important to build confidence and promote education at this time.
Authors: Rudi Byleveld & Makhosazana Shilubana