President of the Industrial Court, Deborah Thomas-Felix. (Image courtesy Industrial Court of Trinidad and Tobago)

Industrial Court President Deborah Thomas-Felix has stated that mandatory vaccinations cannot be implemented unilaterally by employers.

Delivering her annual speech at the opening of the court’s 2021/2022 Law Term at its headquarters in Port-of-Spain, this morning, Thomas-Felix stated that while employers are permitted to introduce a vaccination policy for new employees, consultation is mandatory for it to apply to existing workers.

Thomas-Felix said: “In other words, can such a policy be introduced unilaterally by employers in the workplace? The short answer to that question is NO.”

“The introduction of a COVID-19 vaccination policy or any new policy can amount to a material change in the terms and conditions of employment and ought to be imposed unilaterally,” she added.

She noted that if workers or their recognised majority union cannot come to an agreement over such a policy, they can take their dispute to the Ministry of Labour or come directly to the court through the filing of an industrial relations offence.

Thomas-Felix also suggested that unions and employers consider adding COVID-19 related clauses when entering into negotiations for new collective agreements.

Thomas-Felix noted that while between January to March 2020 only six industrial relations offences were filed at the court, 178 were filed between March 2020 and September 14.

“Most of these industrial relations offences are complaints related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the majority of them pertain to the lack of consultation by employers with workers, the unilateral alterations of terms and conditions of employment and the failure of employers to enter into collective bargaining with unions to discuss and resolve COVID-19 related issues,” Thomas-Felix said.

She suggested that the high rate of filings demonstrated the absence of social dialogue by many in the workplace.

“Unilateral COVID-19-related decisions are causing a deterioration of labour management relations which is very troubling and does not augur well for industrial relations and productivity in the post-COVID-19 economy,” Thomas-Felix said.

“I strongly urge all participants of the labour market to take note of this development and to make efforts to reverse this,” she added.