The direction of Victorian food processor SPC for all staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19 could lead to Australia’s first ever test case over what’s considered a frontline worker, an employment law expert says.
SPC has made it mandatory for its 450 staff to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, giving employees six weeks to book their first vaccination or risk being stood down from onsite work, the ABC reports.
The fresh produce processing company is considered the first private Australian business to make the vaccine mandatory among workers.
Andrew Jewell, principal at Jewell Hancock Employment Lawyers, says SPC’s vaccine policy is interesting because it is issued to workers that are more removed from the industries traditionally associated with frontline workers.
“It pushes what’s presently the accepted boundaries,” Jewell tells SmartCompany.
“If there’s a test case, it’s going to be interesting to see how far away you can get from the frontline before that direction is considered unreasonable.”
It’s now accepted that it is legally reasonable to make vaccinations mandatory for people who work in high risk areas.
These workers can include those in the hotel quarantine system, in aged care facilities and in COVID-19 hospital wards.
Jewell says if an SPC employee who refuses the jab is dismissed due to their refusal, and then brings an unfair dismissal case against their employer, a test case would follow.
“The central issue for the Fair Work Commission would be, ‘is the direction lawful and reasonable?’” Jewell says.
SPC will offer paid vaccination leave and two days of recovery leave to workers who experience adverse side effects to help make it easier for them to get vaccinated.
Hussien Rifai, SPC chair, told the ABC that the business had been very careful throughout the pandemic to implement safe practices but the Delta variant has heightened the level of risk.
“We believe that the only way that we can get out and protect our employees and our customers and the communities in which we work is [with] the vaccine,” he said.
Rifai added that he believes the vaccine policy is legal because food processing facilities are part of the food supply chain, making them essential.
“We’re comparing ourselves to the essential services such as the aged care people and the frontline people that had to be vaccinated in order to protect themselves, protect the people around them and protect the community at large,” he said.
Currently, 16.25% of Australia’s population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and 33.61% have received its first dose.
SmartCompany has contacted SPC for comment.