Workplace Relations Minister confirms COVID-19 vaccination requirement can be written into new employment agreements

Workplace Relations Minister Michael Wood has confirmed COVID-19 vaccination requirements can be written into new employment agreements, but not existing ones unless agreed to. 

The topic was raised during a virtual meeting of Parliament's Education and Workforce Committee by National MP Scott Simpson, who asked Wood whether employers can require staff to be vaccinated.

"It is not the Government's policy outside of the orders we have put in place, to put in place a compulsory vaccination requirement across all New Zealand workplaces. It's news to me that's the National Party's policy but apparently it is," Wood said. 

The Government mandated COVID-19 vaccinations for border workers, though privately employed port workers have been given until September 30. The rest of the population is not required by law to get a jab. 

"I have regular ongoing dialogue with both of our social partners, Business New Zealand and the Council of Trade Unions. I can quite honestly tell you that I haven't been pressed by either of them to move in this direction of requiring the Government to move in the direction of vaccination of all people in the workplace," Wood said. 

"We have, of course, carefully worked through the particular vaccine orders requiring that in certain high-risk border workforces and we've been working through the issues there, but it's not been one of the major issues on the table from our partners or indeed from other major employment groups, who I interact with regularly.

"But there is a bit of a distinction between people who are currently in their employment and the ability of employers to set requirements for new people who they might employ in the future."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins and Workplace Relations Minister Michael Wood.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins and Workplace Relations Minister Michael Wood. Photo credit: Getty Images

Simpson complained that Wood was "not really giving us a straight answer", and that "in other countries and other jurisdictions, governments are moving with speed to provide employers the tools and also the protections that would mean that they can exclude unvaccinated employees from the workplace". 

Simpson added: "It sounded to me like the minister was saying that the legislation does permit an employer to prevent a non-vaccinated employee from attending a workplace."

Paul Stocks from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) gave a more concrete confirmation. 

"As people enter new employment agreements, you can of course specify the terms and conditions... and you could include vaccination status as part of that," he told the committee.

"The challenge is where you've got an existing employment relationship, and existing employment agreement, changing that without negotiation can't take place."

National MP Scott Simpson.
National MP Scott Simpson. Photo credit: Facebook

Wood acknowledged the Health and Safety at Work Act is "not neat and black and white [and] it's often very contingent on the nature of the workplace, who's working there, the kind of work that's being done, the sort of mitigations that can be made". 

"What we encourage is for employees and employers to work through these issues together," Wood said. 

"Clearly the wish of the Government, and I think nearly everyone in the system, is for the maximum number of people to be vaccinated. That is our best defence. 

"As things stand, there is not a standing provision that enables employers to terminate someone's employment outside of the order, if they have not had a vaccination."

But as Stocks made clear, employers can write it into new employment agreements. 

Simpson believes the issue is going to cause "quite a complex legal clash" in New Zealand between employers and employees. 

"The Labour Government needs to have answers for employers and employees as confusion around rights will likely result in workplace conflict, lost productivity, and a lot more employment law cases," he says. 

"No doubt unions will be formulating their own positions on this and it is imperative the Government isn't lagging behind."