Requests by companies for their staff to get COVID-19 vaccinations could become a serious concern when Japan looks to push ahead with third doses to address increasing cases of the Omicron variant, with some companies pressuring even hesitant employees to get shots, lawyers say.
Japan's sluggish start to its vaccination program picked up pace from early last summer through inoculation drives at workplaces and large-scale centers while the government started booster shots in early December.
Companies, however, must give careful advice to avoid possible "vaccine harassment," despite feeling a sense of responsibility for their employees' health or clients who may only want to do business with vaccinated people, said Shinobu Yanagita, a lawyer with expertise in workplace harassment.
"It could be considered harassment if someone was urged (to get vaccinated) with pressure or persuaded based on inaccurate information," she said.
Unlike some firms abroad, companies in Japan have not imposed requirements that their employees get COVID vaccinations, and doing so could violate rules on preventing workplace harassment under a law that came into force for major companies last June. The rules will take effect for small- and medium-sized companies from April.
But some firms have nevertheless exerted moral pressure on employees to take COVID vaccines.
A woman at a Tokyo-based company said that she received an email from the company's president calling for getting vaccinated to prevent the virus from spreading in the workplace.
"If someone within the company becomes infected, it will create extra work for us, which will lead to a loss," the email read. "No one has valid medical reasons for not receiving shots in this company."
The woman had decided to get vaccinated even before she received the email as she thought it could help keep her family members from becoming infected. But still, she felt uncomfortable because she was unsure whether the mail was sent to all employees or only those who had not yet been vaccinated.
"She told us it was hard for her to go to work because she felt pressured (to get vaccinated). I wish (the company) would have considered how subordinates may feel when they receive such a message," a family member of the woman said.
Yanagita said the woman's case probably constitutes harassment because the message implies the potential for disadvantageous treatment.
"It is also problematic as the company labels vaccine rejection as a selfish act by those who do not care about damage to the company," she said, adding it would create peer pressure to receive shots.
At some companies outside Japan, people have lost their jobs for refusing to be vaccinated. In early December, New York City required private-sector workers to be vaccinated, becoming the first U.S. city to announce a blanket mandate for COVID-19 shots.
A number of people sought support and advice from the Justice Ministry's human rights consultation services in 2021 over vaccination. Among the consultation cases, some reported being told they would be transferred unless they were vaccinated, while one company clearly forced vaccinations, according to a ministry official.
The labor ministry also offers consultation services, but it is limited in what it can do as most who seek assistance are reluctant to give details for fear of being identified by their companies.
When the Japan Federation of Bar Associations provided consultation services for a combined four days in May and October in 2021, the association received about 300 calls about vaccinations.
"Serious labor problems are arising, including dismissals of unvaccinated workers," said Shiro Kawakami, the head of the associations' human rights protection committee.
Kawakami said companies also face a challenging situation, looking for advice on matters such as how to respond to their clients' demand for disclosure of vaccination status of their employees and whether it would be discriminatory to ask job seekers about their vaccination status during interviews.