Jamaica Observer: KINGSTON, By Kimberley Hibbert – SEVERAL household workers across the island of Jamaica are currently at loggerheads with their employers regarding their employment status, now hinged on their decision to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
The household workers, who spoke with the Jamaica Observer on condition of anonymity, had strong opinions on their personal choices be vaccinated or not and believe the carrot stick approach being utilised by employers is unconscionable.
“I was told to get vaccinated or leave, and remarks about ‘Is not me need a work’ are being made. We are not the only ones hesitant. I remember when we had the polio outbreak — I was a teen and hesitancy existed but we were met with information in a far kinder way. No one dangled anything and forced us into a tight spot,” one household worker from Montego Bay, St James, said.
“I took it but I have friends who are just deathly afraid and were told flatly to not come back. Just so. No attempt to have a conversation. The Government said no one should be fired or let go for refusal to take the vaccine, so I am not sure. Maybe we are the low-hanging fruits,” argued a household worker in St Andrew.
A household worker in St Mary said the death of a relative because of COVID-19 was the stimulus for her to get vaccinated, but she pointed out that several of her friends, who are also domestic workers, are turned off by the distance needed to travel to get the jab and their inability to wait.
“I know people from all ’bout in different parishes and the problem most times is that (it) is (only) one and two place alone doing it. Yuh nuh know when the crowd will be there and the one day you might try and go, you end up spend all day. Many of us will lose the day’s pay, and if is a day’s work yuh know that mash up. Also, some of the places far. Separate from that, ministry (of health and wellness) nuh understand seh some people don’t even know weh co-morbidity mean; nuff already nuh like doctor and drink only bush tea. But, that’s the reality. Many of us is by association we pick up and understand certain things, so the hard and fast approach, I don’t think is best,” she said.
“We have to try balance the scale some way. Mi tek it but nuff people who do domestic work may nuh tek it, and is not because dem have anything ‘gainst vaccine, dem just need little more convincing. Memba dem live with people who may be feeding them wrong things and dem believe it till it too late, but that mean you count them out? No, just patience and more teachings,” the St Mary domestic worker said.
But as the 6,900 registered household workers grapple with the stand-off between themselves and some employers, Shirley Pryce, president of the Jamaica Household Workers’ Union, told the Sunday Observer it was unfortunate that household workers were being viewed as bad apples when the attitude regarding vaccine hesitancy is islandwide.
“It’s not just domestic workers. It’s the attitude across the country where the take-up is not very high. Of course, we would have liked to see it higher but it’s just not working that way. Many domestic workers out there have taken their jab, just like everybody else. But while some have taken, some have not taken. Vaccination is personal. You cannot force anybody to do it. All you can do is educate the domestic workers that it is the safe thing to do (but) it’s a personal choice, so I can just encourage them to go out and do it to protect themselves, protect their family, protect their jobs,” Pryce said, adding that the reverse is also true as several of her union members are vaccinated but their bosses are not.
Pryce called on employers of domestic workers to not dismiss their staff on the basis of being unvaccinated.
“No employer is suppose to fire any worker because they refuse to be vaccinated. It’s against the law, whether you are a domestic worker or any other worker. If you’re fired because of this, come to the Jamaica Household Workers’ Union at 4 Ellesmere Road. We will take it from there,” she said.
Pryce further said through the United Nations Women Spotlight Initiative, the Jamaica Household Workers’ Union has been creating brochures and aiming for more education of its members and non-members alike. Pryce, however, called for more partnerships with people on the ground to help combat the misinformation around vaccines that exists.
Meanwhile, Khadrea Folkes, an attorney specialising in employment law, explained that with the employment of a domestic worker the home becomes a peculiar workplace, which may lead both parties to a crossroad regarding the rules of engagement.
“It is, on the one hand, a place where the domestic worker carries on remunerative activity. On the other hand, it is the employer’s private domain. Therefore, the rights of the worker must be considered within the context of the equally legitimate rights of the employer with respect to the rules of engagement in the privacy of their homes,” Folkes said.
“It would therefore be untenable to suggest that the employer, in this scenario, cannot take a decision for their household with respect to being vaccinated. Where the employer’s stance is at variance with that of the domestic worker, it is well within the worker’s right to refuse to comply,” Folkes argued.
This crossroad, according to Folkes, is referred to as a frustration of contract, which is often resolved by termination of contract.
“At that juncture, the contract of employment becomes frustrated as it is impossible to perform as initially agreed, provided of course that the employer did not make a requirement that the domestic worker is vaccinated a term on the basis of which they were being employed, in which case the domestic worker’s refusal would be in breach of the contract.
“However, neither party would be at fault, since both are acting within their right and would not have anticipated the issue of subjecting to a COVID-19 vaccine, which now makes the contract radically different from what was originally agreed to. It therefore follows that the contract must necessarily come to an end when faced with this supervening impossibility of the parties being at variance with respect to taking the vaccine. The contract is therefore terminated automatically and immediately and the parties released from future obligations,” Folkes said.
But the attorney emphasised that if domestic workers’ contracts are frustrated, owed emoluments must be honoured or else employers might be asking for trouble.
“The employer would have to account to the worker in respect of obligations arising prior to the frustrating event such as outstanding wages and compensation for vacation leave which has accrued,” she said.
With regard to concerns that domestic workers might have no formal contract or proof of employment to mount a case, Folkes said, “Regardless of it being verbal or written, it’s a contract. A contract being verbal doesn’t make it any less of a contract.”