Nine Customs workers who chose not to be vaccinated against Covid-19 have been fired, Customs has confirmed.
In a statement, Customs People and Capability deputy chief executive Jacinda Funnell said the fixed-term staff have been provided with a notice of the early termination of their employment.
The statement noted that Customs is required to comply with the Covid-19 Public Health Response (Vaccinations) Order 2021, which specifies that from 1 May 2021, some work at the border can only be done by vaccinated workers.
“The nine staff that received a notice of the early termination were employed on a fixed-term employment agreement to specifically cover the Maritime Border Order requirements, and their unvaccinated status prevents them from fulfilling this role,” the statement read.
“Unfortunately, in some locations, the options for internal redeployment were not available.”
According to the statement, Customs had been discussing options with staff at the beginning of March, and informed them that their “options for redeployment were very limited due to no other Customs functions existing in the area”.
Funnell said Customs sought to explore whether there were other redeployment options across the wider public service.
Christchurch employment law advocate Ashleigh Fechney, who is representing four of the nine workers, said when border workers were first being offered the vaccine they were told that refusing would not put their jobs at risk.
She said the Government’s announcement in late March that any border worker who refuses a vaccination would be removed from their frontline job came as a surprise to her clients.
“All of a sudden my clients think, what’s going on? This is not what we’ve been told,” she said.
As for whether Customs can legally fire workers for not getting vaccinated, Fechney says that’s a “big question”.
“In these circumstances we are saying that the termination was unfair, and the reason for that is because these clients don’t have any interaction with international crew. They are essentially metres away, there is no risk in our view,” she said.
Customs says around 850 of its staff, or more than 95 per cent of frontline staff that were required to be vaccinated against Covid have received the first dose, and 85 per cent have received the second dose.
Of the five per cent of Customs staff who weren’t vaccinated, most of them were unable to receive the vaccine.
The statement said many of the unvaccinated staff were successfully redeployed into alternative roles within Customs.
“Customs has been conducting a robust information and support process for all our staff as part of the vaccination rollout ever since it began just over two months ago, including meeting those staff that remained unvaccinated individually,” Funnell said.