As US banks demand that staff are fully COVID vaccinated before returning to the office, will European corporations follow suit?
After almost 18 months of the COVID-19 global pandemic, governments, citizens, and industries are all looking forward to a time when the disease becomes "manageable" - if not entirely curable.
Mass vaccination has become the wagon to which nation states and their economies have hitched their hopes, for a full return to the economic and social activity that sustains them.
Some economies have bet everything on the double-dose jab, to bring productivity and profits back to pre-pandemic levels.
But is an eagerness to "return to normal" putting undue pressure on their citizens and workforce - or even infringing upon their rights?
Wall Street wants you back
This week, US banking giant Morgan Stanley went further than most when it barred all but fully vaccinated staff and clients from its New York offices.
"Starting July 12 all employees, contingent workforce, clients and visitors will be required to attest to being fully vaccinated to access Morgan Stanley buildings in New York City and Westchester," the bank’s chief human resource officer Mandel Crawley told staff in an internal memo.
The bank wants to remove the need for face masks and social distancing from the workspace equation, but Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman expressed his desire for a returning workforce rather bluntly.
"If you can go to a restaurant in New York City, you can come into the office, and we want you in the office," he said at a recent investing conference.
Morgan Stanley, unlike fellow Wall Street rivals Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, has not yet sanctioned a full return to working from the office, but the banking sector, in particular, sets great store by face-to-face interactions and has set various deadlines in September for this to begin again in earnest.
According to reports, Goldman Sachs ordered its US employees to declare their vaccination status by noon on June 17.
Unilateral vaccine orders not acceptable
Mindful of different legal terrain, Goldman Sachs' European headquarters in London merely "strongly encouraged" staff to complete a survey in May with their vaccination status, ahead of returning to the office by June 14.
But with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) – specifically Article 8, which protects the right to private life – many workers will be looking to this legislation as a means of pushing back against employers’ mandatory vaccination policies should they materialise.
Uni Europa, the European trade union coalition for services workers that boasts more than 7 million members, said it has been tracking the possibility of compulsory vaccines for some time.
Regional secretary Oliver Roethig told Euronews Next that trade unions across the continent have been advocating for both safe workplaces and the vaccine, but added that employers "unilaterally demanding workers to be vaccinated is not acceptable".
"People’s personal health data is highly sensitive and a company requiring access to it sets a dangerous precedent," he added.
"Vaccine sentiments are a symptom of a broader breakdown of trust that is particularly pervasive in societies where income inequality is large. This breakdown of trust cannot be addressed by imposing more top-down decisions.
"If corporations are serious about ensuring workplace safety, they need to stop taking decisions for their workers and begin taking decisions together with their workers".
Earlier this month, the UK government declared that COVID-19 vaccinations will become mandatory for frontline healthcare workers. Failure to be vaccinated could lead to redeployment from the frontline – in hospitals and care homes – or dismissal.
Groundwork for compulsory vaccines?
But in Germany, Ver.di, the trade association for healthcare workers and the country’s second-largest union, rejected compulsory vaccination for its members while actively encouraging them to get inoculated.
"The decision to get vaccinated is voluntary and must remain so," it said in a statement.
"There must be no discrimination based on vaccination status - neither in society nor in employment. There should be no discrimination when it comes to attitudes and other questions".
The seeds for compulsory COVID-19 jabs in Europe were possibly sown in April, after the European Court for Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that mandatory vaccinations for children "are necessary in a democratic society".
The landmark ruling relates to a case predating COVID-19, brought against the Czech government by a group of families whose children were excluded from school, for not being vaccinated against nine communicable diseases that included poliomyelitis, hepatitis B, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, whooping cough and pneumococcal infections.
The ECtHR concluded that health authorities "could reasonably introduce a compulsory vaccination policy in order to achieve an appropriate level of protection against serious diseases" where voluntary vaccination had failed.
Provisions exist within the ECHR for the protection of life under Article 2 to take precedence over the protection of privacy under Article 8.
But some observers see the court’s decision as paving the way for compulsory COVID-19 inoculation in Europe.
At the time, Nicolas Hervieu, a legal expert specialising in ECHR matters, said the ruling "reinforces the possibility of compulsory vaccination" for COVID-19.
Rights versus policy: a corporate dilemma
Exactly where the boundary should lie for corporate intervention in private life - that line between employees’ civil liberties and employer’s policy - remains unclear.
But Professor Catherine Barnard, an expert in European Union and labour law at Cambridge University, had a stark warning for employers treading that line.
"The legal risks for employers are that they face unfair dismissal claims from employees and discrimination claims - disability discrimination and or possibly philosophical belief discrimination," she told Euronews Next.
"There is no guarantee that employees will win, but there is a chance, and this will make employers think hard about requiring all staff to be vaccinated".