With the rapid spread of the novel Coronavirus, formally known as COVID-19, many governments in Asia have provided additional guidelines to ensure safety of the general public. In Singapore, the government has quickly realized the threat the virus poses and, as such, have made considerations in an effort to protect the health and safety of individuals. Despite the outbreak of the virus, many businesses have not ceased operations and therefore are required to take certain steps in order to ensure full compliance with regulation. This notice summarizes the guidelines that should be followed by employers concerning their employees and the resumption of work, considering the special circumstances.
Duties of the Employer
In Singapore there is a common law duty placed on employers to take reasonable care of their employees’ safety and to provide and maintain a reasonably safe workplace for their employees. There is a further statutory duty placed on employers to ensure the health and safety of their employees at work, as far as reasonably practical. Failure to meet this obligation constitutes a criminal offence.
The Coronavirus has been added to the recently revised Infectious Diseases Act, which provides regulations on the prevention and control of infectious diseases in Singapore. Under the Infectious Diseases Act the director of medical services may direct any person who is a carrier or a suspected carrier of an infectious disease to be detained and isolated, in a hospital or another appropriate place. Under this regulation, such a person would be isolated for a period of time determined by the director.
A breach of any order listed in the act will be in direct contravention of the Infectious Diseases Act and may result in a fine of S$10,000 or imprisonment for a maximum period of up to 6 months, or both a fine and imprisonment. Repeat offenders can be fined up to S$20,000 or imprisoned for a maximum period of up to 12 months, or both.
It is imperative for employers in Singapore to stay up to date with any announcements made by the Singapore government. Employers need to ensure they comply with their duties and take any precautionary measures necessary. Employers can stay updated by following the recommendations made by the Ministry of Manpower here.
Quarantine Period in Singapore
All employees who have recently travelled to mainland China are required to go on a 14-day leave of absence and are to self-quarantine themselves at home. During the quarantine period, employers should direct the quarantined employees not to come to work for the duration of the quarantine. The leave of absence recommended is to be considered as paid hospitalization leave.
The Ministry of Manpower has indicated that if an employer fails to fulfil his/her duties and discharge his/her responsibilities, action may be taken against such employer.
As the outbreak of the virus is quite unique in nature, it is important for certain measures, regarding health and safety, to be implemented. Such measures should be implemented to ensure the safety of employees in accordance with government regulation.
Mandatory leave of absence
As previously stated, if an employee has recently travelled to mainland china, he/she must undergo a mandatory 14-day leave of absence. If an employer allows an employee to return to work before the end of the quarantine period, a case could be made that the employer assisted the employee to commit an act in contravention of the Infectious Disease Act.
Recently, the Ministry of Manpower cancelled the work passes of 4 foreign employees and further suspended the work pass privileges of at least 6 employers, for a period of 2 years, for breaching the leave of absence requirement.
In regard to the 14-day leave of absence, an employer must get written acknowledgement from an employee. Thereafter the employer must declare to the Ministry of Manpower that he/she has informed the foreign employees of the leave of absence.
Working from home
An employer may direct other employees, who are not required to take the leave of absence, to work from home, on the grounds that it is a reasonable measure to ensure the health and safety of employees.
Employers are encouraged to let non-essential and backend employees to work from home or work remotely where practicable. Employers are also encouraged to make alternative working arrangements, such as splitting teams or adjusting work schedules to reduce interaction between staff.
Asking employees to take leave
Annual leave – it is possible for an employer to direct an employee to take annual leave, however this may not be well received by an employee, since he spread of the virus supersedes his/her control
Unpaid leave – an employer is not able to direct an employee to take unpaid leave, however this can be done if, after consultation with the employee, the employer obtains the employees consent.
Restrictions imposed on travel
Due to the severity of the situation and taking public safety into account, strict travel bans have been imposed by the Singapore government. Any travelers travelling from mainland China or those who have travelled to China within the last 14-days (from 1 February), will not be permitted to enter or transit through Singapore. These restrictions, however, do not apply to Singaporeans or persons with permanent residency in Singapore.
If an employee has been to or arrived from mainland china in the past 14 days, that employee will receive a ‘health advisory’, which directs that the employee is required to be placed on leave of absence and they are to stay at home for 14 days.
All those who are working in Singapore and hold a “work pass”, and who have a travel history to mainland China, are unable to enter Singapore, regardless of nationality. Starting from 9 February, such persons can only enter Singapore, if they obtain prior approval form the Ministry of Manpower before they begin their journey. Employers must inform their employees about the aforementioned notice and they should further inform them that if they do intend to travel to Singapore, approval from the Ministry of Manpower is required.
If an employee is returning to Singapore, employers are required to prove that suitable premises has been arranged for the returning employee for their leave of absence period. This proof must be furnished to the Minister of Manpower, and if found suitable, an approval letter will be given to the employee. The approval can only be sought 3 days before the employees expected arrival.
Current measures implemented in Singapore
It is advised by the government that, if possible, employees should allow their employees to work from home in order to ensure safety of employees. If an employee is requested to work from home, he/she is still entitled to receive full pay. Employers can also request that employees take statutory leave, however as mentioned before, this may not be well received by an employee. Finally, an employer can request an employee to take unpaid leave, however, an employee’s consent is required to do so.