Merchant Capital

What the Covid-19 vaccine means for the retail industry

The vaccine-roll out is expected for the middle of 2021. With this, comes the hopes of all South African businesses, that vaccinated employees will mean they will be able to remain open and trade without interruptions. Generally speaking, the law demands that employers keep their staff safe from any workplace hazards. At the moment this includes protection from Covid-19 at a secondary level, but as retailers have already experienced, implementing a long-term vaccination policy will be far from easy. So, when it comes to securing your workplace in the time of Covid-19 and beyond, what does a business owner need to know?

First, understand the law

The law is clear, but only to a point. It is important to understand that insisting that staff get the vaccination treads heavily on constitutional rights over the body. South Africa’s bill of rights empowers employees to object to getting the vaccine on several grounds: This ranges from medical concerns around side-effects to the possibility of providing irrefutable evidence that they are immune due to previous exposure to the virus.

Employees may also refuse to get the vaccine due to its inclusion of substances such as swine, which is prohibited by some religious laws. This issue is further complicated because if you insist on your staff getting vaccinated- but then an employee takes the vaccine and sustains negative health effect as a result of the vaccine- then your business may be liable for damages. Employers should also take note of the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA), which regards any medical information as confidential.

So really, staff are under no obligation to disclose anything to you. This puts you in a precarious situation. Meaning you will inevitably need to find other ways to ensure that your business remains safe, without exposing staff privacy or putting their health risk. This will not come without its challenges.

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What should the retail industry be doing to promote public health in general?

Now we move further afield from staff, out into the public where your customers are. What role does the retailer play in the grand scheme of things? When considering the scope of reach from manufacturing to staff to clients, the retail industry makes up a substantial part of the population. The level of interaction is extremely high and so health exposure is really widespread and meaningful. This is certainly a time of massive change and a vaccine’s arrival is a unique turning point that may also bring opportunities. Retailers need every opportunity they can get to be aligned with their staff and customers’ thinking and values. This will be no easy fete. So communication within all organisations is key, as long as they stay within the confines of the law.

The bottom line

Retail stores are in the unique position that they are mostly private entities in public spaces. Meaning that while certain policy will be guided by law, in other ways, employers have to have an informed opinion on how they will promote safety in their retail and office spaces. If you think back to when masks weren’t yet mandatory, stores had to make a call whether they would insist on one prior to allowing entry, and it was a hot topic. The same will happen over vaccine coverage and what policies will be taken in order to ensure safety at all levels and for all people, regardless of personal choice. The bottom line is that as a retail business owner, it’s vital to start having these internal debates now. So that when the time comes, you have a point of view and a clear action plan.

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