The chair of canned food manufacturer SPC says the government should make COVID-19 vaccine guidelines clearer so that businesses can avoid the onslaught of online abuse that SPC received when adopting its vaccine mandate.
SPC notified its workers and their union last week that staff must be vaccinated to work onsite from November. SPC’s vaccine policy exempts workers who are unable to receive a vaccine for health reasons and offers staff paid leave to get the jab and take time off if they experience adverse side effects.
Hussein Rifai, chair of SPC, says the manufacturing business was bombarded with hate email and online abuse for three days after its vaccine policy was first publicised in the media.
“Our staff worked through until 3am to 4am in the morning trying to control the social media uproar,” Rifai tells SmartCompany.
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Rifai says businesses shouldn’t have to deal with hate mail from fringe groups that believe the vaccine is poisonous and other conspiracies.
“The government also doesn’t want to have to deal with that,” he says.
The Fair Work Ombudsman is set to update its guidelines on COVID-19 vaccines in the workplace in the coming weeks to provide some clarity around vaccination mandates in frontline settings.
Rifai’s view is that the guidelines should allow any business to make vaccines mandatory if it is unable to operate remotely.
“If you cannot work from home, if you are a construction worker, if you’re a worker in any sort of factory, you should have to get vaccinated,” he says.
Such guidelines would redirect community backlash over mandatory vaccine policies in the workplace towards governments and away from businesses.
“Then everybody will quietly send their memos to their staff and it won’t be as big of a deal,” he says.
Since announcing its COVID-19 vaccine mandate, SPC has also received criticism from the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU).
AMWU claims workers were not consulted with before SPC made the decision to make the vaccine compulsory and that the direction is unreasonable given current vaccine supply issues.
Jason Hefford, assistant secretary of AMWU in Victoria, said it was apparent SPC had not properly thought its policy through because workers had not been consulted.
“SPC have not given us clear answers on how the timeline of the demand can be met given there are supply and accessibility issues with the vaccine,” Hefford said.
Rifai refutes those claims saying that the decision to mandate the vaccine was a business decision based on providing a safe work environment to staff under state and federal workplace laws.
“The consultation starts in how we best implement the decision and implement it in a way that’s suited to the company and the staff,” he says.
Rolling meetings have taken place in SPC’s Shepparton factory this week. The meetings have included all staff regardless of whether they are members of a union. (About 50% of SPC’s workforce is unionised).
Rifai says the vast majority of his staff are supportive of the policy and he remains committed to working with both the union and his staff throughout this process.
Workers were given six weeks to make an appointment with their own doctor to receive medical advice about the vaccine, and a further six weeks to receive their first dose.