An abattoir in central Queensland is leading the COVID-19 vaccination race with almost all workers inoculated amid industry frustration with the rollout.
- 94 per cent of workers at Teys Australia’s Rockhampton plant are fully vaccinated against COVID-19
- The Australian Meat Industry Council says the vaccine rollout to meatworkers has not been adequate
- Lawyers say businesses can mandate vaccine under OH&S laws
“Ninety-four per cent of our workers in the Rockhampton plant had their second vaccine about a month ago,” said Teys Australia manager John Langbridge.
“That was done on-site by Queensland Health and that was a really good process.
“Our other sites aren’t quite in that league because they are required to go to normal medical practices, but the numbers are getting reasonable at most sites.”
Mr Langbridge said meat workers understood the urgency and importance of getting inoculated.
This week Shepparton cannery SPC announced they would be mandating workers to get vaccinated by November or risk losing their jobs, but Mr Langbridge said he supported workers rights for voluntary vaccinations.
“We don’t see the necessity to even consider mandating COVID-19 vaccinations,” he said.
“We are promoting the vaccine, we are encouraging workers to talk to their local medical practitioner — their trusted source of health information — and to take that advice.
Mr Langbridge said the Rockhampton plant was an example of what businesses can achieve when supply of vaccines meets demand.
The company’s other work site vaccination rates averaged about 20 per cent and Mr Langbridge said inoculation efforts in Biloela, Beenleigh, Tamworth, Wagga Wagga, and Naracoorte had been hampered by a lack of supply.
Is mandating vaccines legal?
A past president of the Law Institute of Victoria, Micheal Holcroft, said employers such as SPC had an obligation to keep their employees safe under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which can include mandating vaccination.
“In Victoria, an employer who fails to act reasonably to protect the health of their employees can be up for a fine,” he said.
“For individuals that’s around $327,000 and a maximum fine for a company is $1.6 million.
“So you wouldn’t want to be the employer who fails to take a step and then has people getting very ill or dying from COVID-19. You may well be called to task.”
Mr Holcroft said although retrospective changes to working conditions raised concerns with unions about workers rights, there is legal precedent that employers had the right to update workplace expectations under OH&S laws.
“This particular pandemic wasn’t forseen a number of years ago, so the fact that people signed on for jobs at that time and this wasn’t covered I think is unfortunate, but it’s just practical.”
As COVID-19 vaccines become more readily available, Mr Holcroft said more businesses would feel pressured into mandating vaccines.
“Given abattoirs have now been identified as somewhere COVID-19 can very quickly take hold, I could imagine those operators being forced to [mandate vaccines],” he said.
Roll out ‘not great’
Australian Meat Industry Council CEO, Patrick Hutchinson, said less than 20 per cent of abattoirs had over 60 per cent of their workforces fully inoculated.
“It’s very difficult for us. Over 50 per cent of our members staff had to go to a vaccination hub and another 26 per cent of them had to go to a doctor,” he said.
“We want on-site vaccination and more access to the vaccine.
“As a group who is in the 1B phase of the vaccination roll out, those things have been very difficult for us to do.
Mr Hutchinson said despite abattoir workers being required to have other vaccines, such as Q fever, operators are not planning to force workers to get COVID-19 vaccines.
“Whilst there has been a great uptake in some abattoirs we’ve seen others that have found it exceptionally difficult,” he said.
“We’ve heard of members who were about to have on-site vaccination and that vaccine gets moved onto year 12 students. Some staff have had to travel in groups 100 kilometres to get vaccinated, and others have been able to do it in a day.”
Abattoir operators had been incentivising workers to get vaccinated, Mr Hutchinson said.
“Some had provided gift vouchers, cash incentives, meat boxes, or paid time off to get vaccinated,” he said.
“We are an essential service so therefore we need to make sure we have business continuity, and that comes into play when we have our full group vaccinated.