The global COVID-19 pandemic has created significant and ongoing challenges for the Queensland agriculture sector. As an essential service, agribusinesses and their workers are critical for farming activities and the agricultural supply chain. If a farm or agribusiness facility was locked down due to a COVID-19 outbreak among its workers, it would disrupt the supply of produce, impact the welfare of animals, and cause economic losses to the agribusiness. As a result, employers are encouraged to promote the COVID-19 vaccine to their workers to minimise the risk of business lockdowns, and protect families, colleagues and the community. However, those exploring the implementation of a mandatory vaccination policy for their workers should consider a range of issues.
The Australian Human Resources Institute suggests an organisation assess the context of the work environment and its employees before considering mandatory vaccination. While directing employees to be vaccinated may be lawful, it does not necessarily follow that it is reasonable. The Fair Work Ombudsman has provided a tiered structure to guide employers which should be considered alongside any health orders or Queensland public health directives. Furthermore, if an employer decides that mandatory vaccinations are fair and reasonable, then the implementation must also be fair and reasonable. There must be a clear policy, full consultation with employees, provision of support measures to assist them to comply (for example, time off work to get vaccinated), and timely implementation.
While what is "fair and reasonable" remains unsettled, the Australian Chamber of Commerce suggests in the meantime, employers can communicate, encourage and support their employees by providing reliable information and flexibility to get the vaccine, have sensible conversations with their employees, keep accurate and up-to-date health records, and continue to take preventative measures to ensure the health and safety of everyone in the workplace.
A collaborative approach that includes discussing, planning and facilitating COVID-19 vaccinations is preferred for Queensland farms and their workers. However, before implementing a new workplace policy or changing an existing policy about vaccinations, farmers should consider their workplace and employees' circumstances and, in particular, whether they need legal advice about their obligations.
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