U-turn: Cosatu now backs mandatory vaccination, but other unions are still averse

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  • Cosatu says its position on mandatory Covid-19 vaccination has "evolved".
  • The federation now says mandatory vaccinations are better than losing livelihoods under another lockdown.
  • But other unions are not in favour, saying that workers' rights to choose must be respected.

The country's largest trade union federation, Cosatu, has changed its stance and now supports mandatory Covid-19 vaccination.

On Sunday night, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that a government task team is looking into making vaccination against the coronavirus compulsory for specific activities and locations.

Cosatu, which represents a group of labour unions aligned to the governing party, including unions in the public service, says although it was initially opposed to forced Covid-19 vaccinations, its stance has changed.  

"Our position has evolved," spokesperson Sizwe Pamla told Fin24.

Previously, the federation was openly opposed to the idea, as some companies – including Discovery, Old Mutual and Curro – as well as universities, moved to only allow vaccinated individuals on their premises.

"Initially our position was 'let's persuade the people to vaccinate'. But the reality is that 2022 will be the third year of living with this deadly pandemic. We do not want another lockdown, we would rather have people forced to vaccinate than have another lockdown."

Pamla said Cosatu is mainly opposed to another lockdown, which he said would be devastating to the already weak economy.

Although member unions have supported mandatory vaccines, the decision to back compulsory vaccinations was "not an an easy or popular one" and largely took into consideration the effects that the pandemic including the country's perennial power cuts have had on the economy.

He said workers in the health sector had paid with their lives, while those in the service sector have seen mass job losses, as some hotels have been forced to shut.

"Vaccination is not the worst option right now as things stand - having people lose their right to earn a living is the worst option," he said.

Don't impose

However, Cosatu’s position is not shared by some of the other unions, including the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which says it will fight tooth and nail to protect its members from the repercussions of resisting the jab, should it become compulsory to inoculate.

"Just as it was done with TB and HIV, testing was voluntary and the process proved to be a success. We are of the view that when it comes to Covid-19, the same principle should apply," said NUM deputy president Phillip Vilakazi.

READ: Business body BUSA seeks court order on mandatory Covid-19 vaccination

Vilakazi pointed out the mining industry drew labour from different sectors of society, religious and cultural beliefs, even different nationalities, therefore it was important that the vaccine consider such diversity.

"We agree with the formation of the task team ... but until its pronouncements are made official, our right to choose remains.

"The government's approach to this should be that of persuasion, not threats. Once you bring in threats, there is bound to be resistance and we are prepared to fight for our members' rights," said Vilakazi.

Several mining firms are running workplace vaccination sites, in a bid to assist the government's rollout programme. The system initially targeted employees but had now been extended to communities.  Some 53% of the workforce fully vaccinated, according to data by the Minerals Council – compare to 37% of the South African adult population.

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) says the jabs have demonstrated that they work, but it will also not support mandatory vaccination.

"We continue to encourage members to vaccinate. We believe those that, for whatever reason, do not vaccinate, have the right to choose not to, and their constitutional right should be protected."

Trade union Solidarity is also against mandatory vaccination.

The union's head of Research Institute, Connie Mulder, said there had cases where employers had already sneaked the practice through the back door and that there was legal ground to challenge such approach.

"We encourage people to vaccinate, but no one should be forced."

Under the Occupational Health Safety Act, 85 of 1993, employers must ensure a safe working environment that does not risk the health of employees or others that may be directly affected by their activities.  Some employers feel that the act, in the absence of a specific legislation that empowers them to apply mandatory vaccination requirements, opens a loophole for mandates.

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