“Employment dependent on Covid vaccine”: European committee prompts new controversy

“Employment dependent on vaccine”/ “Businesses can deny work to those who do not want to be vaccinated” – these are just two headlines in the Portuguese media today following the position reportedly assumed by the European Economic and Social committee.

Explain reports, in an interview with Lusa news agency the committee’s president Christa Schweng intimated that businesses “could deny employment to workers who refuse to be vaccinated against Covid-19”.

For now, this is purely a national story. Ms Schweng’s remarks have not appeared in non-Portuguese media and it is not clear whether they will be, or indeed whether they will be taken any further.

She continued the interview saying (presumably in her opinion?) that the vaccine should not be obligatory.

“The worker can decide if he/ she wants to work or not, and in the case in which a vaccine is demanded in order to sign a contract, although one would have to see if an employer wants only to vaccinated people in the company, I don’t know what they will do”.

Not a very helpful message from a woman who gave an interview with euroactiv website a few days ago headlined “Jobs do not fall from the sky”.

As the national mainstream picks up on Ms Schweng’s vaguely Orwellian suggestion that employment could indeed become dependent on people being vaccinated, it is becoming clear generally that European governments are intent on ‘pushing the advantages of taking up the vaccine’ (largely because so many people are reticent about it).

In UK for example Whitehall is said to be launching a campaign to encourage people to be vaccinated after polls have suggested less than half the population is onboard.

Says the Times, the campaign “will acknowledge that the jab is not 100 per cent safe under an honesty-first approach”.

In Portugal – at least for the time being – the government is described as guaranteeing that uptake of the vaccine will be voluntary.

Legal experts however warn the Labour Code does allow for vaccines to be imposed on workers ‘in determined circumstances’. The current pandemic could be said to be one of these.

Article 19 of the Code states that when “the safety of the worker or third parties” is deemed to be at risk, the employer “can demand tests and exams “for the effects of admission or permanence in the workplace”.

However the word ‘vaccine’ does not appear in the Article, thus jurists have suggested there may be need for ‘legislative clarification’ if vaccinations are indeed to be covered by this clause in employment law.

Syndicates meantime have been quoted as saying the very notion that people will need to be vaccinated in order to be hired is “absurd”, while Vieira Lopes, president of the Portuguese confederation of commerce and services has described the possibility as “nonsensical hygienic fundamentalism”.

In Vieira Lopes’ mindset “businesses should be free to define their own criteria for hiring staff”.