By Lice Movono, RNZ
New regulations directing all workers in Fiji to get a Covid-19 vaccine have shocked many in the country - less than a week after announcements by the government to the contrary.
Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama on Thursday revealed tough new rules to encourage people to get immunised against the coronavirus.
Fijian public servants have been told they will be sacked if they do not get fully vaccinated by November 1, this year.
Ana, a senior civil servant, said the new directive felt like rape - given that she like other civil servants - had been informed via a media statement made by the Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum last week that "it remained everyone's constitutional right to choose whether to get vaccinated or not".
"I feel like it's rape in a sense because I had been given a choice. In terms of my body, I've been informed that this is what the vaccine does. And to get that choice removed, and you know, by someone who is saying that you are a fool for knowing the signs and yet you still are not being vaccinated," she said.
"I'm not an anti-vaxxer. I'm not against vaccination and I've had all my vaccinations for all other diseases.
"But when I heard about the vaccine, when it was first introduced as a Covid-19 protocol to get vaccinated, at first, I was just worried because there wasn't much data on it."
Ana said she had used her educational skills, attained in both Australia and New Zealand, to assess the risks of taking the vaccine and decided she wanted more time to decide if she was willing to take them on.
While she does not doubt the methodology used to bring the AstraZeneca vaccine to distribution, Ana said she wanted due process to inform her choice.
But with three children to support, Ana does not feel she has a choice and said her job was her life.
"At this certain point I know that with this kind of vaccine, as the years go on, and as stats improve or as more people get vaccinated, our data will actually improve.
"Maybe they will improve on the vaccine itself and get a better vaccine that will be more efficient and may mean its more effective, but with less of the risk.
"So although I know there is a very low, low way low chance of getting it (blood clot), it was just not reassuring to me.
"They have taken away my choice at all, I just don't have a choice. Now I have to get vaccinated.
"Even with this doubt in my head, I know I've read up on all the stats about it, it's there is a very, very rare risk that might happen. But it is a risk nonetheless."
Frustrated and sad, Ana has called on human rights activists to take action, asking where they were when "this is a direct violation of my human rights."
Constitution violated: unions
Workers rights advocate Felix Anthony said the prime minister's announcement was surprising given the government had not consulted the Fiji Trades Union Congress (FTUC), the country's largest federation of trade unions in Fiji which represents 70 per cent of the working population.
Anthony is general secretary of the National Union of Workers and FTUC secretary and said efforts to get an audience with the country's permanent secretary for Labour fell on deaf ears today.
"We don't believe that this directive is appropriate, it violates the laws; the Employment Relations Act, the Constitution of this country. And in particular, section 11:3 of the Constitution.
"This sets a very dangerous precedent in that the government basically makes it a condition of employment for workers," Anthony said.
"This is something that is being imposed on workers of this country, and we don't believe that the government should have a role to impose such conditions on employment. Workers have collective agreement, they have contracts, and if there is going to be a change to the terms and conditions of employment, then proper negotiations and collective bargaining process should take place. That is not so."
While the FTUC has itself advised all members to take the vaccine, the union believes the choice is a workers right to take or not.
He said changes to the country's occupational health and safety legislation, the Health and Safety at Work Act (HASAWA) 1996 could have included dialogue to help employers plan mitigation measures that benefited employees rights too.
"There has been absolutely no consultation nor have we been informed that this was the government's intention. Obviously, the government has been working on this for more than a week or so and they had every opportunity to consult, they have failed to do so," Anthony said.
"I have, in fact, made contact with the Permanent Secretary for Labour to convene a meeting between the FTUC and the Fiji Commerce and Employers Federation to try and figure out how we manage this Covid problem that we're currently facing.
"Unfortunately, the government has failed to respond to our requests. There has absolutely been no discussion on this at all."
Anthony labelled the government's Covid-19 response as being "more of a fire brigade approach" and reactive to the changing situation adding it was obvious the government was not in control.
He said it was time that the government called for better engagement with its social partners, "including civil society organisations, and work together to try and deal with the situation. Unfortunately, they don't see it that way."
He reminded workers the new directives "are only regulations" which don't override the constitution and had not been tabled in parliament to be passed into law.
'Pandora's box of rights issues'
Suva lawyer Filimoni Vosarogo echoed Anthony's remarks saying despite the new regulations which have been gazetted, there still exists provisions in the Constitution making it unconstitutional for vaccination to be made a condition of employment.
Calling the new measure an opening of "Pandora's box" on rights issues, Vosarogo said he was 100 per cent confident workers would seek to challenge the vaccine directive.
"Now legally, the starting point of any discussion on the topic is the understanding that vaccination is a medical treatment or procedure. And the Constitution says that prior free and informed consent is required to validate that procedure, not any other consideration.
"The new laws will cause people to vaccinate not because they want but because they would not want to lose their jobs, or fear the loss of security, or really just the general happiness in their lives," Vosarogo said.
"So these new laws run the higher risk of being struck down in my view for its discriminatory slant against people who wish to exercise choice out of their convictions and beliefs."
Vosarogo said the introduced regulations were unconstitutional and arbitrary.
They had been brought about without consultation and they lack fairness expected in a free and practising democratic country, he said.
"The new regulations have effectively eroded the right to freedom from medical treatment without prior and free informed consent.
"I am absolutely sure, 100 per cent sure, that someone who, out of choice, out of beliefs or out of their own conscience would choose not to vaccinate under these new regulations, he or she would definitely bring an action in the High Court to seek redress over these reported breaches of this constitutional rights.
"If you were to ask me, What are the chances of that happening? 100 per cent? Absolutely, that's going to happen."
Bainimarama said locking down the country wouldn't work but he added people were not doing enough to help counter the virus, especially ensuring they get vaccinated.
To date, 335,000 Fijians have had at least one dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine. The prime minister wants the country to achieve a target of 586,000.
Fiji now has more than 7000 Covid-19 positive cases in isolation and more than 45 deaths have been reported since the latest outbreak started in April.