by Gemma Handy
Firing hotel staff who refuse to get a Covid jab has been described as “inhumane”, “discriminatory” and possibly illegal by the union fighting their cause.
The Workers’ Union (ABWU) hit out yesterday at the tough stance levelled at hospitality staff who fall under the Hotels and Tourism Association (ABHTA) umbrella.
The latter body has advised its many members – which include many of the country’s biggest resorts – to dismiss unvaccinated employees, citing an “unacceptable risk” to coworkers.
“While being vaccinated does not create an absolute bar to contracting the virus, the experience and science shows that it does significantly and materially reduce the chance of transmission,” an ABHTA statement issued on Tuesday said.
But it earned a harsh response from the ABWU who said it was vital the rights of all workers be protected.
“It is quite unfortunate that the association has advised its members and is advocating for unvaccinated employees’ exit from employment,” it said.
“This we consider a very disingenuous and inhumane position to take at this time. Furthermore, the dismissal of any unvaccinated employee under the circumstances would be discriminatory, illegal and therefore, challengeable legally and otherwise.”
The union also lambasted the timing of the ABHTA’s edict, coming ahead of an online national consultation taking place this afternoon, organised by the Prime Minister’s Office, which seeks to garner views on testing and vaccination policies from the private sector, unions and political parties alike.
“This is not the time to dig our heels into the sand and use power and position to punish individuals whose stance may not be on all fours with ours on the issue at hand,” the ABWU statement, signed by General Secretary David Massiah, said.
Massiah later told Observer he was “totally surprised at the association’s tone and stance”. And he said it was unfair to require all staff to be vaccinated when many hotels do not have a similar policy for their guests.
Massiah said, while he understood mass inoculation was important, the strict measure was “taking a shot at the poor people of this country … who have carried this industry” for years.
The ABWU statement said the union would further outline its position at today’s consultation being held via Zoom.
“We urge the association to honour the principles of dialogue, genuine consultation and the spirit of good industrial relations,” it added, saying that to do otherwise would result in “constant conflict” between the two bodies.
To what extent the warring entities can strike a compromise remains to be seen with strident rhetoric coming from both sides.
For its part, the ABHTA says its legal obligation is clear: to provide a safe work place for all staff.
“The association supports its membership’s understanding that unvaccinated staff pose a higher and now unacceptable risk to other employees in so far as the contraction of Covid is concerned,” Tuesday’s statement said.
The ABHTA also pointed out that many staff have young children for whom no jab is currently available. Minors must be at least 12 years old to qualify for the Pfizer shot in Antigua and Barbuda.
“Having unvaccinated staff and workers poses a risk to other staff and their families as well as customers and their families. In this regard, we are of the view that if we fail to act by implementing a reasonable policy, we could open ourselves up to significant liability,” the statement continued.
The association’s chairman Vernon Jeffers said he was unaware of any law that could prevent hotels and other businesses from imposing vaccine restrictions on people who enter their premises.
“In fact, we are certain that as it is our premises, we have the right to insist who may enter and who may not. This right we may exercise so long as we do not discriminate by reason of political affiliation, religious conviction, and ethnicity or race,” he said.
“We are confident that we are not so discriminating. We are excluding those persons who pose an unacceptable risk to others if allowed on the premises – those being unvaccinated persons.
“We believe this and have been assured it is our constitutional right so to do,” Jeffers added.
The question of the legality of mandated vaccines has sparked much debate in recent months. This week, two learned local attorneys publicly claimed the government’s ‘get jabbed or get tested’ policy for its 14,000 workers was justifiable by law.
Earlier this month, two prominent Caribbean jurists also outlined in a lengthy brief sent to OECS leaders their views that there is “ample provision” in the sub-region’s constitutions to support mandatory vaccination laws.