Judith Collins says employers shouldn't make vaccination against COVID-19 compulsory, fearing we'll "end up with two classes of people in this country" if they did.
More than two-thirds of eligible Kiwis are either fully vaccinated or booked in to get their second dose, and Health Minister Andrew Little at the weekend said it's likely there won't be any more lockdowns after the current restrictions in Auckland lift.
With anyone 12 or over able to get vaccinated now, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has set Auckland a first-dose target of 90 percent over the next two weeks, hoping that will make it easier for the city to move to level 2.
But there's unease that a minority who refuse to get vaccinated will make it harder to stamp out any future outbreaks without resorting to lockdowns. Modelling has suggested as many as 97 percent of eligible Kiwis will need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity with the current vaccines, which don't offer sterilising immunity.
Some countries overseas have introduced vaccine passports, allowing people who've been inoculated more freedoms - such as attending events and going to cafes. The Ministry of Health here is working on one too.
Some employers have been mandated by the Government to ensure staff working in certain roles - predominantly on the front lines - have been vaccinated.
Collins appeared on The AM Show on Wednesday, and was asked if employers should have the right to not hire - or even fire - employees who refuse to be vaccinated.
"I think that's a bit too tough actually," she told host Ryan Bridge. "There's no other illness, virus or anything else that people have to have an immunisation to stay in a job. We can understand if it's frontline health workers, frontline people, border-facing workers, there's a different situation there. Their chances of getting and spreading COVID-19 are so much greater than everyone else."
Employers can at present ask prospective new employees if they've been vaccinated. The Employment NZ website says the request "must be reasonable for the role (for example, required for health and safety reasons)".
Candidates don't have to answer the question, but if they don't - or admit that they haven't been vaccinated - employers can use that as a reason not to hire them. The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 requires employers to take "all reasonably practicable steps" to ensure a safe workplace for both staff and anyone else who might enter the premises, such as customers. The only exception is if refusing to hire someone would breach the Human Rights Act, for example if they couldn't be vaccinated for medical or religious reasons.
It gets more complicated when it comes to existing employees, because requiring them to be vaccinated would require a change to the terms and conditions of their employment contract. Employers can't do that without first consulting with the employee. Businesses "can require that certain work must only be done by vaccinated workers, where there is high risk of contracting and transmitting COVID-19 to others", according to Employment NZ.
So far the only employment dispute over an employee's vaccination status that's made it to court involved a frontline Customs border protection officer at a maritime port facility worker who refused to get the jab. The employee and Customs were unable to reach an agreement on redeployment away from the front line, so she was fired. The Employment Relations Authority ruled in Customs' favour, citing the COVID-19 Public Health Vaccination Order 2021.
Collins said the Ministry of Health should work on "some policies and guidance for employers and employees".
"But I think it 's also very important that we don't end up with two classes of people in this country."