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A Pick n Pay store. Picture: MIKE HUTCHINGS
A Pick n Pay store. Picture: MIKE HUTCHINGS

Here’s a good reason to switch to shopping at Pick n Pay. Last week, the Pick n Pay franchise in Wellington sent a letter to one of its staff members telling them they have 14 days to provide proof of vaccination or “you will find yourself in a disciplinary enquiry with the outcome of dismissal”.

It is a tangible example of how a vaccine mandate works in a company, and along the lines of how mandates have been imposed in several countries, particularly in the US, to great effect.

In a customer-facing business, like a retailer, airline or hospital, this is an arguably even more critical imperative.

In the letter, the franchise said it had “undertaken a risk assessment and considered the circumstances in the workplace”, as well as its obligations to provide a safe working environment for staff under the Occupational Health & Safety Act. That staff member had first been sent a letter on October 29, telling them to provide proof of vaccination, which they clearly hadn’t replied to, and they now have until December 10.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a policy that applies to the whole Pick n Pay group just yet. Rather, this was implemented by the owner of that particular franchise in Wellington. 

Tamra Veley, spokesperson for the group, tells the FM: “The policy on vaccination in franchise stores is a matter for the franchisee.”

But, she says, Pick n Pay “supports the objective of getting as many people vaccinated as possible”, as President Cyril Ramaphosa urged last weekend.

Pick n Pay, like the other large retailers, has so far shied away from imposing a group-wide mandate. Legally, there appears no real problem with doing so, but it seems most of the retailers are tiptoeing around this for fear of alienating customers and trade unions.

Perhaps they needn’t worry so much.

While some people tried to use the Wellington franchise letter as a lever for a social media campaign to boycott Pick n Pay, it flopped. 

Evidently, the antivaxx lobby miscalculated the force of their perceived argument: many of the social media comments were supportive of the retailer, and said this move was “the right thing” for staff and customers. 

As one person put it: “[I’m] only shopping at Pick n Pay now.”

Nor should the retailers fear a backlash from the unions, it would seem.

Last week, labour federation Cosatu said its position has evolved to the extent that it now realises that simply encouraging staff to vaccinate isn’t working, and mandates need to be considered. ”We now need collectively as society to engage in requiring vaccination to enter public spaces, malls, restaurants, events, sports,” said spokesperson Sizwe Pamla.

This is partly because, as the FM’s Natasha Marrian reported last week, thousands of employees in the retail and manufacturing sectors have been battered by the lockdowns, and lost their jobs. Mandates, they now see, may be a route out of this. 

This isn’t a universal view, however. The public service unions that are part of Cosatu — such as the National Education, Health & Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) — have been largely protected from the lockdowns, and are still opposing mandates. 

Employees at these unions are on the state payroll, so they collect a salary whatever happens, and are largely protected from the fallout in the wider economy.

The few companies that have implemented mandates in SA have had tremendous success, however. Discovery Health, the first to publicly implement a mandate, said last week that after imposing a mandate, 94% of its employees are now vaccinated. 

Discovery’s success has emboldened other companies. Standard Bank, for example, has implemented such a mandate from April 4. 

CEO Sim Tshabalala argued that rigorous scientific studies “have now shown conclusively — beyond any reasonable doubt — that the vaccines … provide excellent protection against serious illness and death”.

Globally, many companies with public-facing roles have also implemented vaccine mandates, and seen vaccination rates rocket. But retailers in the US have been laggards, fearing that mandates may deter staff — a concern in a country with record low unemployment. 

As Jeff Gennette, CEO of Macy’s, told The New York Times: “Any ruling that we have to mandate [vaccines] prior to Christmas is just going to exacerbate our labour shortage.”

But others — such as United Airlines, American Airlines, IBM and consumer products company Procter & Gamble — have done so, ahead of the directive for every company with more than 100 workers to impose a mandate, or require weekly tests, by January 4.

And labour unions in that country don’t seem to be a problem. 

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union, told the newspaper: “If you had a choice of going to a workplace, or as a customer to go to a store, that said ‘All our employees are vaccinated or tested’, or another store that says ‘We have no idea who’s vaccinated or tested’, which would you choose?”

As the social media response to Pick n Pay suggested, it’s the sort of leadership that can burnish — rather than dull — your proposition for customers. 

Rose is editor of the FM

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