Labor chief cites alert level system as basis to require workers’ vaccination

Xave Gregorio - Philstar.com
Labor chief cites alert level system as basis to require workersâ vaccination
Marlene Cenina, 39, sewer, works making Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for frontliners, in Cainta, Philippines, on April 24, 2020 during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
AFP / Ted Aljibe

MANILA, Philippines — Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III said it is possible for some employers to withhold payment and even fire workers if they refuse to get vaccinated against COVID-19, in a turnaround from previous pronouncements.

In an interview with ANC’s “Headstart” on Thursday, Bello cited the new alert level system being implemented in Metro Manila and 19 other areas as a legal basis to require the vaccination of workers, even as the rules on the implementation of these coronavirus curbs do not explicitly say this. 

He added that the same alert level system being implemented by IATF — the state’s pandemic taskforce — could be a basis to not pay and even terminate unvaccinated employees.

“There’s an IATF resolution saying that if Alert Level 3 is hoisted, a restaurant can operate. But that restaurant’s employees and customers need to be vaccinated. So there is now a law,” the labor chief said in a mix of English and Filipino.

“Because now there is an obligation on the part of the employer that their employees are vaccinated. So they can also require their employees to get vaccinated because there is a legal basis,” he added.

Asked for comment, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra told Philstar.com that it “is best that we discuss this first in the IATF.” But if the pandemic taskforce would back Bello’s statement, requiring workers' vaccination would be the government’s most aggressive step yet to increase vaccination rates in a country that was heavily battered by the coronavirus pandemic.

But Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, a labor group, was quick to counter Bello, saying an IATF resolution cannot override labor laws and the COVID-19 Vaccination Program Law.

Under existing rules, withholding wages is illegal without workers' consent and vaccination should not be an additional requirement for employment. While the alert level system does require workers in certain businesses and establishments to be fully-vaccinated, guidelines on its implementation do not state that employers can freeze compensation or fire employees on the grounds that they are not vaccinated.

TUCP added that most workers are willing to be vaccinated, but tight supply of doses is preventing some employees from getting the shot.

"The central problem is the inadequate supply of vaccines and poor access of workers to vaccination slots but why IATF and businesses make workers suffer for the inadequacy and unavailability of vaccines. Isn't that unfair and disadvantageous to workers?” TUCP spokesperson Alan Tanjusay told Philstar.com.

The TUCP earlier sounded the alarm on supposed practice by some companies who allegedly withhold the salaries of unvaccinated workers until they have shown proof that they have been given the jab. Bello, however, said he has yet to receive reports on this reported scheme.

Despite providing a supposed basis to require vaccination, Bello said it is still “not prudent” to make jabs mandatory for workers.

“Until we have sufficient supply of vaccines, I am not inclined to pay for a mandatory vaccination,” he said. — with a report from Kristine Joy Patag

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