As Australian businesses prepare for a safe reopening in line with many global counterparts, an increasing number of Australian organisations have announced vaccine policies requiring staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to the office. Governments, such as those in NSW, have also announced additional freedoms and special privileges for vaccinated people who will be able to attend sports venues or visit pubs.
Internationally, these moves have seen some success in convincing some people to get jabbed. And for a country which had a very slow start to the vaccine roll-out, the more people we can get vaccinated the safer we will be.
But unsurprisingly, these moves have also raised concerns for some people about where an individual’s right to make vaccination choices might clash with an employer’s need to keep their wider teams and customers safe.
Some people have even gone so far as to suggest that workplace policies that ask people to be vaccinated before they return to the office are a form of discrimination against the unvaccinated.
And it’s this claim that I think we need to address, and to explain why this is not the case.
Workplace discrimination is a serious issue. DCA’s research shows that discrimination has negative impacts on workplace performance and productivity, let alone on individual’s wellbeing.
At DCA, we do a lot of work to counter discrimination in the workplace. And we see the insidious impact that discrimination has on people.
Our definition of diversity recognises that a person’s identity is made up of our own individual mix of our social identity (that is our Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander background, age, gender, caring responsibilities, LGBTIQ+ status, culture or faith etc) and professional identity (our profession, education, organisational level, location etc). These aspects come together in a unique way for each individual and shape the way we experience inclusion or exclusion (that is, discrimination, harassment etc) at work.
In Australian law, discrimination is based on protected attributes; for example, our race, sex, gender identity, disability status, among others (many of the aspects of our social identities). These attributes, or aspects of our identities, are protected under various anti-discrimination acts at the state and federal level.
These laws developed out of a desire to address systemic disadvantages. For example, the Race Discrimination Act, introduced in the mid-1970s, came only two years after the final abolition of the white Australia policy, and was designed to address the “evils, the undesirable and unsociable consequences of discrimination”. The Sex Discrimination Act, introduced a decade later, sought to tackle the sexual harassment that women face the workplace.
An important aspect of our anti-discrimination laws is that they recognise that someone's race, age or gender is irrelevant to them being able to do their job. They have been introduced to redress areas of exclusion and disadvantage and while there may have been opposition to their passing at the time, you will struggle to find many people who don’t agree that discrimination or harassment on the basis of sex, race, age or disability is a terrible thing.
COVID-19 has definitely exposed real issues in our society relevant to diversity and inclusion. Some of the communities who have been hardest hit by the recent Delta outbreaks in Sydney and Melbourne are the most racially diverse, and socio-economically disadvantaged. People from those communities have experienced racism, prejudice and exclusion. But those communities have also rallied and are getting vaccinated at among the highest rates in the country.
Workplaces have also been massively affected by the move almost overnight to remote working. On top of this the impact of the extended lockdown in many Australian cities has caused logistical, physical and mental health challenges for employers and employees.
Ultimately, for employers grappling with how to design a safe return to the office (or worksite) vaccination policies are a workplace health and safety issue.
Workplaces have a responsibility under our Work Health and Safety (WHS) laws to prevent accident or injury in workplaces or public environments. And one of the best ways to prevent and control workplace injuries is to design out or minimise hazards.
In the case of COVID-19, that would be preventing, or if that is not reasonably practicable, doing their utmost to minimise the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace. And in this objective, a demonstrably safe and effective vaccine must be the central way to keep employees safe, healthy and together.
So many employers are struggling to try and work out the best way forward; one that balances the interests of the business with the rights of employees. But in that juggling act, rights are not absolute. If the right not to vaccinate affects someone's right to be safe, then it is a problem.
Balancing competing rights can be tricky. But this is something we can address with the principals of D&I. Indeed, this is the logic we at DCA argued in relation to proposed religious freedoms bill – that the right to religious expression at work should not impinge on someone’s right to be openly gay or live authentically as trans without being harassed or vilified.
It is disappointing to see people co-opting the language of discrimination, diversity and inclusion, and applying it to vaccination status. People who truly experience discrimination - based on their identity, and who are recognised under anti-discrimination laws - have no choice, as a person unwilling and without a legitimate medical reason to get vaccinated does. Employers also do not have a choice when it comes to keeping everyone safe and COVID-19 free. It is part of their duty of care and one which, pleasingly, they are unwilling to compromise on.
Lisa Annese is the CEO of Diversity Council Australia.