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Jabs for all

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The rules on corporate social responsibility spending by big business should be relaxed to include vaccinations of staff and the community, argue Indian companies.


India’s big businesses have mobilised as the country has been hit by a huge second wave of Covid-19. The industry’s top priority to ensure that employees and their families are safe from Covid-19 aligns with a call from the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) for businesses to extend their vaccination drives to neighbouring communities.

As the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic rolls on relentlessly, India Inc has been playing a key role in driving coronavirus vaccinations. Providing vaccines free of cost, or at subsidised rates, to employees and their families, India Inc drives home the point that with this pandemic, no one is safe, unless everyone is vaccinated.

Though not mandatory, businesses are hopeful that all their employees will take the jabs as the Indian government has allowed everyone above the age of 18 to get immunised against the coronavirus from 1 May.

Educating workers
Employers are also playing an important role in educating their workforce about the benefits of taking the jab. The importance of thoughtful employer-employee communications cannot be ignored as such communications are focused on messages that are most likely to help people make the right decision about vaccination.

When Apeejay Surendra Park Hotels Ltd found hesitancy among some staff members to get inoculated, they countered it by making their staff aware of the benefits of getting the shot, and how vaccines dramatically lower the risk of severe health complications from Covid-19.

Multiplex cinema chain PVR Cinemas is also encouraging its staff to get immunised. Sunil Kumar, chief human resources officer at PVR Ltd, said the cinema operator is organising free vaccination drives, and simultaneously “motivating the workforce to proactively get themselves and their family members vaccinated”. He added that the company will also reimburse costs incurred towards Covid-19 vaccinations.

The multiplex chain said that 29 per cent of its employees and their dependents have already been vaccinated.

“With the government’s focus on nationwide vaccination, conditions will improve certainly and being direct service providers, we need to ensure complete safety of the customers along with the employees,” said Ajay Bijli, chairman and managing director of PVR, in a statement. “On immediate priority we are extending medical, logistical and financial support with an on-ground Covid response team at local levels.”

In early May, the CII urged companies to step up vaccination of their workforces and, as vaccine availability improves, extend vaccination drives to neighbouring communities.

Sanjiv Bajaj, chairman and managing director of the financial services company Bajaj Finserv and vice president of the CII, said the CII industry body is completely focused on working with the government and the private sector “to ensure that we vaccinate as many people as possible because the challenge is not only on the availability of vaccines, but also how it is distributed”.

In an initiative aimed at safeguarding the health of its employees and their dependent members, Bajaj Finserv and its subsidiaries Bajaj Finance Ltd, Bajaj Allianz General Insurance Company and Bajaj Allianz Life Insurance Company announced that the group will bear the cost of Covid-19 vaccination for all of their staff and their family members.

The company will also bear the cost for the associated staff and their three dependent family members, over 18 years of age, across the country.

Vaccination centres
With India having administered over 180 million jabs to eligible beneficiaries by late May, major tech giants such as Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), Infosys and Wipro are focused on vaccinating their staff and ensuring business continuity.

TCS is setting up 100 Covid-19 vaccination centres (CVCs) across the country to inoculate its 480,000 employees and their dependents. At the time of this article’s publication, the company said it planned to step up its employee vaccination drive in late May.

“This includes CVCs across TCS offices in 21 cities and CVCs launched with our primary medical partner across 33 cities,” TCS said in a statement. “For associates that do not have access to CVCs in these areas, we are also enabling access to vaccination centres via a national network of more than 650 hospitals.”

In an email to employees, Infosys chief executive officer Salil Parekh said Infosys has established vaccination camps for staff and their families at seven of its development centres across the country, and work is in progress to establish more such camps in other centres.

In addition to vaccination camps on campus, Infosys has also collaborated with over 130 hospitals across India, where staff and their family members can get vaccinated.

Information technology company Wipro hopes to have access to 100,000 vaccine doses by early June to immunise its staff in India and their dependents against Covid-19. The company says it has procured doses of three vaccines – Serum Institute’s Covishield, Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin and Russia’s Sputnik V – and will administer them free of cost to its employees and their dependents (spouses and children).

The company, which has nearly 200,000 employees, has partnered with top-tier hospitals and online healthcare platforms to make the vaccination drive possible.

Information technology and business outsourcing services provider Tech Mahindra is also taking proactive measures and partnering with leading hospitals such as Fortis Healthcare in Delhi NCR and Kauvery Hospital in Bengaluru to organise free vaccination drives to ensure 100 per cent employee vaccination.

“Vaccination is key to bringing down infection rates and I am proud to work for an employer that champions our health and safety as employees,” said Rahul Kumar of Tech Mahindra. “The vaccination drives are also providing an alternative route to many at a time when several states have almost run out of vaccines.”

Cashback after vaccination
Fintech company for merchants BharatPe announced the launch of a Covid Vaccination Cashback scheme to strengthen the government’s vaccination drive. Launched under ‘BharatPe Cares’, a corporate social responsibility initiative by BharatPe, the programme aims to create awareness about the benefits of Covid-19 vaccination amongst the over six million merchant partners, or shop owners, who are part of the BharatPe network.

Under the vaccination cashback programme, BharatPe merchants will get a Rs 300 instant cashback in their bank account by scanning their vaccination certificate via the BharatPe app.

Ashneer Grover, co-founder and CEO of BharatPe, said: “The shopkeepers in India have played a significant part during Covid-19 by ensuring availability of essentials. It’s time now for them to start working towards unlocking. BharatPe is incentivising all shopkeepers to get vaccinated at the earliest so that they stay safe as business picks up and footfall at shops increase. It’s time to get back to business.”

However, critics say that the eagerness of corporates to assist with vaccination efforts has intensified after the central government announced the inclusion of Covid-19-related expenditure under spending for CSR.

Current CSR norms state that businesses are not allowed to count expenditure incurred exclusively for the welfare of staff as part of their mandatory CSR spending.

In January, the Ministry of Corporate Affairs said that the funds businesses spend on awareness programmes and public outreach campaigns regarding the vaccination drive will be classified as CSR activity.

However, although businesses have been urging the government to allow funds spent by corporates on vaccinating staff and local communities to qualify as CSR spending, the government’s official circular stopped short of taking this step – see https://bit.ly/2RW1PmR

Earlier this year, the CII formed a task force on the Covid-19 vaccine to support prime minister Narendra Modi’s plans “to ensure that maximum numbers of Indians are able to get the vaccine in the shortest possible of time”.

In its policy submissions, the CII task force recommended including vaccination as part of the two per cent mandatory corporate social responsibility (CSR) spending by big business to encourage the private sector to vaccinate its workforce and therefore support the national rollout of the vaccination drive.

According to recent media reports, companies will soon be allowed to claim expenditure on Covid-19 vaccines as CSR spending. The central government is reportedly planning to issue new norms which will allow businesses to procure coronavirus vaccines for community inoculation drives, including employees and their family members, and claim it as CSR spending.

The government will issue norms in the form of frequently asked questions on how such expenditure can be counted as part of a company’s CSR obligations as long as it is part of a community-based vaccination project, the Economic Times reported, citing a government official.

However, some corporates are already extending their vaccination drives beyond their staff and workers’ families and stepping up community vaccinations. For instance, consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble has committed Rs 50 crore towards Covid-19 vaccinations for over 500,000 Indians to be carried out in partnership with government and local authorities. Also, Ambuja Cement Foundation, the CSR arm of Ambuja Cements, has facilitated in vaccinating over 75,000 beneficiaries in rural India. Needless to say, the companies are also vaccinating their employees and their families free of cost as well.

However, industry experts say that with many valued employees and members of the workforce succumbing to Covid-19, corporations have realised that it is better to invest in vaccinating employees, and in some cases their families, and amplifying the reach of vaccination drives.

Also, lockdowns, which are creating hurdles in the country’s economic recovery, will not abate until the vaccination rates rise.

Devesh Prakash, partner at EY Financial Accounting Advisory Services, said that since India Inc is doing a lot to support staff, so their expectation is that the definition of CSR must be broadened to include employee vaccination. He stated that “such a move would enhance the reach of the vaccination drive in a shorter time frame and encourage vaccinations for unorganised labour in the manufacturing sector”.

Harish Bijoor, business and brand strategy specialist and founder of Harish Bjoor Consults Inc, said: “Vaccinating employees and their family ecosystems is a great move. There is just no charity here though. Pandemic-insulated employees help businesses continue without hiccups.

"Vaccination drives that immunise entire set of factory workers and their families attempt to create a vaccinated bubble environment which is good for business continuity at large.”

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