Victorian 'no vax' ban deadline looming

Victoria's mandatory vaccination deadline for ag workers is October 15, 2021

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The state government is sticking by its plans for mandatory vaccination of agricultural workers and contractors by October 15.

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NO JAB: Buffalo dairy farmer Peter Young says he won't be asking his staff to get vaccinated, nor will he check the vaccination status of those who come onto the property.

NO JAB: Buffalo dairy farmer Peter Young says he won't be asking his staff to get vaccinated, nor will he check the vaccination status of those who come onto the property.

Allowing unvaccinated workers onto farms in Victoria could result in $100,000 fines, as the state government sticks with plans for mandatory vaccination of all authorised workers.

The Department of Health and Human Services has confirmed that agricultural workers and contractors will have to get their first COVID-19 vaccination dose by Friday to keep working.

Under the Chief Health Officer's directions, workers and contractors must be fully vaccinated by November 26, if they wish to continue working on properties.

Individuals can be fined up to $21,808 and corporations $109,044 if they allow unvaccinated workers, or contractors, on their farms.

Employers are responsible for complying with vaccination requirements set out in the directions and must collect, record and hold vaccination information for any worker going onsite.

The directions also state they must deny entry to any worker who doesn't meet those requirements to come onto the property.

But the government is yet to fully clarify how the directions will enforced, and by whom.

Clear guidance

Victorian Farmers Federation president Emma Germano said the regulations raised serious privacy ramifications, which might flow from providing information to the wrong agency or third party.

"We want very clear guidance as to who can ask us, on our farm, for that information," Ms Germano said.

The VFF has been joined by AUSVEG VIC, Fruit Growers Victoria, Food & Fibre Gippsland, GrainGrowers, Citrus Australia and Melons Australia in calling for greater clarity around the directions.

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Ms Germano said Agriculture Victoria had told the VFF the regulations would be enforced by "authorised officers" under the Health and Wellbeing Act.

"When I said who are they, we were literally told, 'they have a black uniform'," she said.

"Who are these people?

"How do they go about asking for the information and what is the timeframe by which you have to provide it?

"We are still encouraging people to get vaccinated - the questions we are raising, are not anti-vax."

She said a section of the act allowed for exemptions for "urgent and essential maintenance of assets".

"Is feeding cows maintaining an asset, if only unvaccinated staff are able to do that job?," she asked?

"This is a very forceful approach to get vaccination numbers up, but it's a very blunt instrument that's causing a lot of angst."

This is a very forceful approach to get vaccination numbers up, but it's a very blunt instrument that's causing a lot of angst. - Emma Germano, Victorian Farmers Federation president

Buffalo, Vic, dairy farmer Peter Young said he would not be asking his staff to get vaccinated, nor would he check the status of those who came onto the property.

"Am I going to stand at the gate and say you can only come on, if you are vaccinated?" Mr Young said.

"It goes against everything I believe in - we have never mandated any other vaccine, so why now?

"Once it starts, it doesn't stop - where does it end?"

He said he believed it went against privacy and unfair dismissal laws.

"If one of my workers gets vaccinated, it's up to them, if they don't it's up to them," he said.

Benalla, Vic, shearing contractor Nick Van Elk, owner of NK Shearing, Benalla said neither he, nor any of his 30 strong crew, wanted to get vaccinated.

He said the 15 shearers and 15 shed staff would now go to NSW, where there were no restrictions.

"They flat out won't work (in Victoria) because they don't want to have the needle."

He said he backed his employees - "I think its everyone's personal choice".

"All the farmers around this local area, around Benalla, Wangatta, Ruffy, Strathbogie, Euroa won't get their sheep shorn," he said.

He said he didn't want to get vaccinated either.

"If I sent them to a farm, I will get fined for having unvaccinated workers - but I thought Prime Minister Scott Morrison said it was a personal choice."

He said he'd been told authorities would use Australian Tax Office information to enforce the directions.

"They will find you, when you do your 'one touch' payroll reporting."

Agribusiness approach

Meanwhile, leading agribusinesses say they are being proactive in protecting their employees and farmers.

Fonterra Australia supply chain director Justin Ryan said the company would not send unvaccinated staff onto farms.

"Since the vaccine became available we have strongly encouraged our staff to get vaccinated, and we've committed to taking every step we can to protect our people and the communities we operate in," Mr Ryan said.

A Bega Cheese Limited spokeswoman said it would comply with the directions for all Bega workers, who were scheduled to work outside their ordinary place of residence on or after the relevant date within the directions.

"Bega expects that all suppliers will also comply with the directions in Victoria," the spokeswoman said.

"Employers of workers are required to collect, record, and hold vaccination information about anyone they employ or engage, or relevant vaccination booking information or vaccination exception information, in line with the directions."

Burra chief executive Stewart Carson said unvaccinated employees would be stood down, without pay, on October 16.

"We have been very focused on our employees over the last two years," Mr Carson said.

"Everyone on our sites has done a fantastic job, complying with everything from cleanliness and face masks, segregation and work bubbles to contract tracing sheets.

"We have said to our employees if you chose not to get vaccinated, that's your choice, we can't force you to, either way

"However, you will be stood down, without pay, on the 16th.

"We are not terminating our employees we are just saying you will be stood down."

No formal decision had been made to mandate vaccinations.

"If we get to December, and everything opens up again, then maybe those people can come back to work," he said.

Riordans Grain managing director Jim Riordan said 100 per cent of the company's staff were vaccinated.

"The rules are very clear for businesses and staff that worked through COVID mostly uninterrupted.

"As of October 15 all staff and contractors and people entering RGS businesses will need to be vaccinated as per the government health advice."

VFF Grains Group president Ash Fraser said farmers were already experiencing workforce shortages.

"You have got a header sitting there, without a driver, are you going to turn a potential worker away?," Mr Fraser said.

"It puts farmers in a vulnerable position."

Farming was the one occupation where people could social distance without trouble.

"The driver might come onto the farm and load his truck out of the mother bin," he said.

"What may mean is the driver stays in his truck, which is loaded by someone on farm.

"By persevering with it, it is just going to force people into non-compliance - we don't want to be non-compliant, but you are forcing things that far."

Shepparton, Vic, orchardist Peter Hall said he had no authority to ask someone else about their medical details.

It also also put an extra burden on farms, which had to track and demonstrate compliance.

"To me, the timeline seems to have been ill-conceived," Mr Hall said.

"There seems to be a lack of appreciation of the challenges agriculture industries face.

"Let's have some common sense, we already have a labour issue, and this puts more pressure on us."

From a management perspective, it put farmers in a "really awkward position'.

"We become the policemen for the government's directive - thats's not something farmers warm to."

The government should take responsibility to put in place its own vetting processes or evaluations.

"To put it back on farmers is just another cost, an impost and a distraction in a really difficult year."

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The story Victorian 'no vax' ban deadline looming first appeared on Stock & Land.

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