Jamaica, like other countries throughout the world, is having to deal with the novel coronavirus pandemic and how to live with it as a new ‘normal’. This is for many reasons, chiefly because people need the human interaction we have been deprived of as a result of social distancing; education, it has been found, is better suited in face-to-face settings, primarily because of a lack of access to material, trained staff, and Internet; and because businesses — and, by extension, workers, and the general economy — has stuttered due to the stop-start lockdowns and curfews imposed.
In the midst of this all steps forth the business community which, as noted earlier, has been affected and seen revenues dip severely. In their wisdom and desire to resume dealings as usual, companies have begun insisting that workers be vaccinated, show medical exemptions, show proof of negative tests, or be fired.
The workers, who have not taken this lying down and who have viewed this as a slap in the face, have taken the issue to court as a constitutional question and for breach of contract. The matter of the constitutionality of the issue was thrown out, not because the action of the employers was deemed constitutional but because the judges decided that this is the remit of Parliament, but the issue of breach of contract has been allowed to proceed.
I cannot begin to describe how much of a bad move it is to have this matter taken before the courts and I am fearful of the precedent that will be set should the workers lose the case surrounding breach of contract.
Let us start with it just being a bad move. The reasons given — so far anyway — for wanting such a mandate is that the national vaccination rate remains woefully low, leaving workers susceptible to illness, work stoppages and slowdowns, and companies potentially on the line when it comes to paying for workers/clients exposed to the virus from non-vaccinated workers. I get the reasons behind them, but this action makes no sense. If the uptake is so low due to a lack of education and total mistrust of authority — as was revealed by a poll by Northern Caribbean University — how is using brute force going to make it any better? But let us assume that the people of this country, who have been known to eschew rules they disagree with regularly, buckle to this, how do we propose to win the people over when the next earth-shattering event happens, as it eventually will?
Yes, a lot of people are cemented in their anti-vax stances, but brute force will not work, and if it does today, it will so poison the well that we won’t be able to do anything tomorrow — something we may already be seeing as the plaintiffs have appealed the court’s decision to throw out the constitutional question.
And let us assume that the Jamaican attitude towards authority and being told what to do remains, with the vaccination rate currently hovering below 20%, are we really saying that we will have the remaining 80% unemployed because they call the bluff of the threats to fire them? How then will the economy and the country, which we are all apparently so dearly trying to revive, operate?
As it relates to the breach of contract, this should make everyone who is not an owner of a business — that is everyone who has to work for other people for a living — sit up and take notice. Again, I understand the circumstances are different, we are in a pandemic and need to inoculate people in order to return to ‘normal’, but a contract is negotiated over a lengthy period of time covering all manner of issues and agreed upon by all parties, a legally binding document. For one party to overnight change the contract and say, ‘by the way, we now expect this should not sit right with anyone even if we are in a pandemic’. The precedent set would be that the worker has no say in the contract process, that what is agreed upon today means nothing as other items can be added upon pain of dismissal if you, the worker, do not accept it.
We can all say ‘oh these are exceptional circumstances calling for this’ and even assure that it won’t be abused in such a manner, but these are businesspeople seeking the almighty dollar and responsible to no one and nothing except shareholders, and we live in a country where the thin edge always leads to more axe blows and a felled tree.
Police brutality is an example, normalised and everywhere after it was unleashed ‘only on the poor and obviously guilty’. Corruption, once ‘only done to get a smalls off Bakra’ is now endemic and saps the life of the nation, and the list goes on.
This is bad news whichever way one looks at it and the fact that it has gone this far shows how little trust the employees have in their bosses and the liberties bosses have been allowed to get away with that make them think this is the best solution. This could have and should have been dealt with through the respective unions — where they exist and where they do not — through collective bargaining directly with the employees. What makes not using this option even stranger is the fact that almost every union that I can think of is in some way, shape, or form behind and actively pushing its members to be vaccinated. What must the unions with their hard-fought-for rights to represent the workers be thinking as this issue goes to court, potentially undermining decades of gains on their part?
Force, brute force at that, cannot be the option for these companies. The use of force in order to do a medical procedure on someone has been illegal since 1945 and you can blame the Nazis and Japanese for that. As much as I get irked by anti-vaxers I don’t want to emulate Hitler and Tojo, so I maintain that education and the winning over of the population is the best avenue. It will be timely — but that is because our leaders at every level have burnt all bridges of trust — and face pushback. Not everyone will take it as doctors will warn them of potential health risks and people are exempted due to religion, but education, as I said, is what is needed if this is to be dealt with properly.
Restrictions of privileges, sure, no one has a right to watch the Reggae Boyz lose 0-3 in person (it may in fact be a punishment to force them to sit through the dull game), but we do have a right to the ability to be employed, house and feed ourselves and all those good things.
Just as we looked at the Americans and said they were stupid to react to 9/11 in such a draconian way, opening up the door to open despots with the Patriot Act and the NDAA of 2012, I am saying that we are being stupid and doing immeasurable harm by looking to craft a protocol through the courts. It is obvious the government in their cowardly state will not issue guidance and mandates, as those would likely be challenged, but that does not mean that the private sector in their unelected and unaccountable glory can act like this.
Pressure the parliamentarians who you so lavishly fail to take the steps leaders are supposed to take, and have been taking throughout the region, and issue the mandates so they can be within the constitution, begin actual education campaigns meeting people where they are most comfortable, work with the unions so the workers do not feel like they are being attacked from the top and that this is an inclusive process where their concerns are taken seriously, and stop taking the easy way out, a way that only would represent a pyrrhic victory and hamstring any long-term effort to win over the people.