Jane Clifton: Government leaving every other workplace to fend for itself


The Government is asking for trouble by leaving most workplaces to deal with unvaccinated staff and customers as they see fit.

Besides causing death, long-term illness and indefinite home detention, Covid-19 turns out to play merry hell with its sufferers’ workplace safety, in unexpected ways.

The much-pilloried woman who went on an illicit whistle-stop tour of the North Island accompanied, did she but know it, by the Delta variant, may have had a compelling reason for evading the authorities for so long.

Officials are being fascinatingly coy about the nature of her employment, but former MP Hone Harawira has claimed to have some idea as to why she didn’t want to give an account of herself.”She didn’t want to get hammered.”

It should be noted that the PM has attempted to scotch such speculation. But as the woman’s plight shows, Covid and the workplace have a fiendishly complex future ahead.

Even for more conventionally employed workers, business interactions are now loaded with mortal consequences. Not even employment lawyers are relishing the inevitability of could-go-either-way court cases to sort out the plethora of issues. While everyone waits for clarity, the only productivity gain is likely to be enjoyed by Delta.

The Government has ordained mandatory vaccination for the border, health and education workforces, but is leaving every other workplace to fend for itself. There is an official “vaccine mandate guideline” process, but it’s little more than bureaucratic homoeopathy if aggrieved refusenik lawyers up, as some already have.

The pandemic has created a Bermuda Triangle between the Bill of Rights, the Privacy Act, the Human Rights Act and the various employment laws. Business leaders began lobbying last year for solid guidelines, preferably through legislative order.

The Government is still “looking at issues around” vaccine mandating, but as the Council of Trade Unions remains stoutly opposed to tougher measures, the Beehive’s Labour loyalties prevail. Businesses can sort out the conundrum at their own expense.

Unhappily, that expense will fall on pretty much everybody. To humour a small minority of people who won’t get vaccinated – only a tiny percentage of whom have a valid medical reason – the rest of society will have to jump through costly hoops and bear the continued risk of the virus flourishing.

Failure of nerve

It’s not just vaccination that’s in question here. Because Covid testing is a new but non-statutory requirement in most workplaces, it’s possible employees will be able to refuse to comply with it.

If one staffer in, say, a firm of electricians is unvaccinated or untested, everyone else will have to do most of that person’s work because few clients will want to have a potentially infectious person visit their premises. That is, if the client is even allowed to ask the staffer’s vaccination or test status. This could be a rerun of the 80s nuclear-ship-visit game of peekaboo, where the visitee is allowed to ask but the visitor reserves the right not to answer – except in this case, no one is sure the visitor can’t legally insist on coming into port anyway on the grounds of unjustified discrimination.

From a safety perspective, the Government’s hands-off policy makes even less sense. It hardly matters that the tandoori restaurant won’t admit unvaxed customers, because the pizza place next door will, so Delta will always have somewhere to make new friends.
Cruelly overlooked are those in poor health, for whom this period of workplace suck-it-and-see means indefinite level 4.

Given other countries, including Australia, have unabashedly gone much further down the “no jab, no job” route, the Government’s failure of nerve is unaccountable. The CTU membership is hardly going to transfer its fealty to National or Act over tougher vax mandating. Those Labour or Green voters to whom it’s a vote-changing issue will already have decamped – not that there would have been many of them to start with. It’s notable that no viable political party is courting the anti-vax vote.

Such voters will soon find that, however lenient our Government is, other countries don’t want a bar of them. Well, not unless they’ve got a cosy little onshore trust, in which case: have a few million cheeky roubles from an oligarch to go with your Covid, tovarish.

Boring old food

It has been almost a breath of fresh air to contemplate another category of antisocial minority: the global tax dodger. Despite tough talk over the Panama Papers leak five years ago, the newly collated Pandora Papers show that neither stripe of the New Zealand government has done enough to stop the mega-rich using trust companies here to shelter their – surprisingly, often ill-gotten – fortunes. Our exposure is reduced, but clearly, as with exposure to Covid, there is much room for improvement.

What enlivened this revelation no end was the response from former prime minister Sir John Key, who reaffirmed his support for New Zealand moving away from food production and into global financial services. “The Switzerland of the South Pacific” apparently remains his idea of our greatest possible destiny.

It just goes to show, there are always new ways of looking at the same set of facts. Instead of being embarrassed, it might be fun to embrace being the potential conduit through which former British prime ministers might avoid stamp duty, Russian despots discreetly remunerate their mistresses and Azerbaijani oppressors defraud their population.
In contrast, food production is methane-producing, land-despoiling, bloody hard work.

However, what has undeniably kept this economy afloat during the pandemic in the absence of our second-biggest foreign exchange earner, tourism, is this fuddy-duddy preoccupation of ours with producing tucker.

Despite challenges, New Zealand is a world leader in efficiency and sustainability in many food categories. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the world risks catastrophic food scarcity in coming decades, suggesting that boring old food production would be a sensible thing to plod on with.

Ireland used to think waving a low-tax hanky at global moneybags was sexier than its old farming gig, and, to be sure, it was highly lucrative. It has just been forced to increase its corporate tax rate after international pressure because, as with the pandemic, only a global effort is truly effective against tax evasion.

To foster tax minimisation for domestic political reasons is now globally socially unacceptable. So, surely, is pandering to vaccine refusal. How odd, then, that this country’s most stubborn case of vaccine hesitancy is its own Government.

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