A Whanganui iwi leader says reaction to unvaccinated workers is splitting local workplaces and leaving people distraught, frightened and fearful for their jobs.
Ken Mair, an employment relations mediator for nearly 40 years, said Covid-19 vaccination requirements were creating division and fear in Whanganui work sites, and unvaccinated workers suffering a backlash were predominantly Māori.
He said he was deeply concerned at the Government's strategy to push vaccination and said other options must be considered.
Under sweeping Covid-19 policy changes announced yesterday, the Government said more of New Zealand's workforce would be required to be vaccinated or lose their jobs.
"I have major concern in particular for Māori workers about how they're being treated, ostracised, isolated and alienated," Mair said.
"Some of them are really concerned around losing their jobs and also what's the next step? Do they get charged, are they made criminals for this decision that they've made?
"In the workplace, I can see major fall-out and division, people being distraught – really, really frightened for their wellbeing, for their whānau's wellbeing, their economic wellbeing. The impact upon the Māori community will be massive."
Mair, who has been double-vaccinated, is also negotiating Treaty claims for his iwi as chair of the Whanganui Land Settlement Negotiation Trust. He said he has spoken to both employees and employers in several Whanganui workplaces in the past two weeks and it was time for frank discussion with iwi and community leaders, local government leaders and the Government.
"This divisiveness, people left on the outside, is not the appropriate way to deal with each other within the workplace.
"We started off with the clear statement: let's be kind to each other, let's look after each other, let's be a team of five million, let's stay strong together. Sadly, I'm not seeing that happening within the workplaces that I've been into in the last two weeks. What I'm seeing is quite the opposite.
"I would certainly encourage people to be vaccinated. However, the reality is that a large number of Māori workers haven't accepted that they should be vaccinated – from their perspective, for very good reasons – and therefore we have to look at other options to ensure the health and wellbeing of all within our community."
Mair said concerned workers and employers – "and not just Māori" – had come to him with suggestions for alternative workplace measures including wearing masks, good ventilation, taking workers' temperatures daily and frequent saliva testing.
"I would be calling on the Government to roll out those kinds of initiatives to ensure that everybody feels safe within their workplace, within our community. These options need to be seriously looked at as part of the strategy.
"Twenty-five very large businesses in this country have been given the go-ahead to getting 300,000 rapid antigen tests into the country. That should be an opportunity also for our community here in Whanganui and throughout the country.
"Those are the types of initiatives we need to seriously look at to ensure the health and wellbeing of workplaces right across the board."
A coalition of some of New Zealand's biggest freight, aviation, manufacturing, energy, food production, telecommunications and aged care businesses has been granted an exemption by the Director-General of Health to import and use approved rapid antigen tests. Mair said the coalition includes Mainfreight, Foodstuffs, Air New Zealand, The Warehouse and Vodafone.
"We should be sitting down with the Government and saying we want the same for this community."
Employers were also in a difficult position.
"They may have to make some serious decisions around the future of some of their workers, and a couple have a worker shortage. The impact on them is going to be massive.
"They're looking for serious options to keep everybody safe, to look at how we can move forward together. We need to kōrero, and I have not seen that happening except for discussion that is causing divide and rule and alienating our people within our community."
Ongoing strategy must include encouraging people to get vaccinated, Mair said, but from an iwi perspective it was not about who's vaccinated and who's not.
"This is about upholding our values as a community, as iwi and hapū, and respecting each other's decisions. Let's look at other strategies that should be available to us and move forward with some of these very good options to ensure that the health and wellbeing of our community is kept intact.
"What we don't want in our community is this continuation of division, ostracising people, people losing their jobs in large numbers. The reality is a large number of those deciding not to have the vaccination are in the lower socio-economic areas and are predominantly Māori, and it will be Māori who suffer the most."