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Coronavirus - Employment law update - Singapore

  • Singapore
  • Coronavirus - Country overview
  • Employment law

28-04-2021

Overview

In this briefing we address some common questions raised by employers in Singapore when dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak.

In a situation of great uncertainty, employers need to focus on maintaining their employees’ trust and confidence by showing leadership; complying with local laws and government guidance; developing measures to control the risks faced by the staff whilst at work, and by acting fairly, reasonably and consistently.

General principles

Singapore employers should:

  • regularly monitor and comply with the various advice and guidance issued by the relevant authorities such as the World Health Organisation (“WHO”), the Ministry of Health (“MOH”) and the Ministry of Manpower (“MOM”)
  • assess the risks faced by their employees and visitors and implement measures to mitigate those risks, paying particular attention to vulnerable employees (such as older employees, those who are pregnant; with impaired immunity; employees who have underlying medical conditions; on secondment or working away from home)
  • inform their employees about their newly implemented protocols and precautionary measures to safeguard the workplace
  • review their need for flexible working arrangements and whether existing contracts and working arrangements permit such flexibility, and if not, consider how this might be achieved
  • review policies governing business travel, holidays, sick leave, medical benefits, caring for dependants and flexible work arrangements to ensure a reasonable and consistent approach, taking account of their risk assessment and government guidance
  • review relevant insurance policies and guidance issued by their insurers
  • update contact details for staff and management
  • develop measures for dealing with employees who have travelled abroad and to the affected regions, who may be at particular risk of contracting COVID-19 or who report symptoms and may have COVID-19

1. Employer’s duty of care – what does the law in Singapore say?

Under the Workplace Safety and Health Act (Cap. 354A), employers have a statutory duty to ensure the health and safety of all their employees at work to the extent reasonably practicable, failing which they may be liable for committing a criminal offence.

Employers should stay abreast of current status and advisories issued by international and local health organisations and clearly communicate to their employees any newly implemented contingency plans.

Additional precautions such as temperature screenings, increased sanitisation of common areas and provision of protective equipment (e.g. hand sanitisers, masks, and alcohol wipes) should be implemented at the workplace to ensure compliance with their legal obligations. In particular, food and beverage establishments must conduct temperature screening and health declaration by staff each time they report for work, provide hand sanitisers to frontline staff who handle cash and other devices, and who are unable to wash their hands frequently and place hand sanitisers in close proximity to high touch surfaces like door handles so that staff and patrons can sanitise their hands.

Employers must ensure that all on-site personnel, including employees, visitors, suppliers and contractors, wear a mask and other necessary personal protective equipment mandated by sector-specific requirements at all times at the workplace, except during activities that require masks to be removed. Masks will have to be worn immediately after the activity is completed. Employers should ensure that they have sufficient masks for all employees, including any need to replace masks more frequently due to workplace conditions. Where possible, employers should consider improving the working environment for employees to enable them to sustain wearing the masks.

Where operationally feasible, special attention should be paid to vulnerable employees who are older, pregnant and/or have underlying medical conditions in planning of work schedules. Frontline work exposure to these employees should be reduced. Frontline employees should also advise customers who are unwell to seek immediate medical attention.

Employers should require employees to sign travel and health declarations with express instructions to inform HR of any change in circumstances. Employees should also be informed to notify the company should they be approached for any contact tracing exercise relating to confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases.

2. Business travel – should travel be restricted? 1

All Singapore citizens and permanent residents may travel overseas: (a) to the following countries: Australia, Brunei Darussalam, New Zealand, Mainland China and Taiwan, (b) if they are pursuing academic studies or professional qualifications overseas for courses or examinations which require physical presence in the foreign educational institution, (c) if they are taking on or returning to employment overseas for employment opportunities which require physical presence overseas, (d) for essential travel for business, official and work purposes under Green/Fast Lane arrangements and the Periodic Commuting Arrangement, (e) for compassionate reasons, (f) to seek medical treatment which cannot be reasonably received in Singapore, or (g) to return to country of residence to attend to, or after attending to, legal/contractual obligations.

Except for the above, all Singapore citizens and permanent residents are advised to defer all other forms of travel overseas.

However, essential business and official travel will be permitted under the Reciprocal Green Lane (RGL) scheme. Presently, the RGL scheme only facilitates short-term essential business and official travel between Singapore and the following counterpart countries/regions: (a) Brunei Darussalam; and (b) Mainland China (Chongqing, Guangdong, Jiangsu, Shanghai, Tianjin and Zhejiang). The RGL scheme between Singapore and Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and the Republic of Korea are suspended until further notice.

Business and Official Travel may also be permitted under the Air Travel Pass (ATP) scheme. The ATP scheme enables foreigners who are short-term visitors to seek entry into Singapore. Presently, the ATP scheme is only available to foreigners from: (a) Australia; (b) Brunei Darussalam; (c) Hong Kong; (d) Mainland China; (e) New Zealand; and (f) Taiwan. The ATP arrangement with Vietnam is suspended until further notice.

From January 2021, the Singapore government has also launched the Connect@Singapore initiative which aims to facilitate essential global business exchanges and support the revival of Singapore’s air hub status and hospitality sector. Presently, the initiative is available for all countries/regions except the United Kingdom and South Africa. Under this initiative, a limited number of business, official and high economic value travellers from all countries will be able to enter Singapore for short-term stays of up to 14 days. Travellers entering Singapore under this initiative will be subject to strict health and testing protocols to protect travellers and the local community. Travellers will be required to present a valid negative COVID-19 Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test prior to leaving their home country and take a COVID-19 PCR test on arrival in Singapore. For the entire duration of their stay, travellers will be required to stay within a “bubble” at Appointed Facilities, undergo regular PCR testing and strictly observe all prevailing Safe Management Measures (SMMs). Travellers will be able to conduct meetings with local visitors and with other traveller groups (with SMMs in place) while in the facilities.

Based on the latest situation, all travellers (including Singapore citizens and permanent residents) will need to take a COVID-19 PCR test upon arrival in Singapore. The requirements for Stay Home Notice (SHN) and COVID-19 tests are specific to individual circumstances. Travellers approved for entry into Singapore should refer to their Entry Approval Letter or SafeTravel Pass for details on whether they are required to serve their SHN and COVID-19 test to take. A detailed guide on SHN and COVID-19 tests requirements for travellers to Singapore is available at: https://safetravel.ica.gov.sg/files/SHN-and-swab-summary.pdf

In relation to work trips abroad, employers should defer all travel abroad for their employees and consider the latest government and international guidance, guidance from their occupational health advisor and available measures to mitigate risk.

3. Flexible working - can an employer require staff to work flexibly?

Yes. Although working from home is no longer the default mode of working in Singapore and whilst up to 75% of employees who are able to work from home may return to the workplace, the Singapore government remains encouraging for employers to implement a more flexible and hybrid way of working for employees who can work from home.

If employees have to be absent from work for non-work related reasons due to the COVID-19 situation (e.g. caregiving needs for family members or for children who are unable to return to school or childcare), employers are encouraged to adopt additional flexible work arrangements to minimise work disruptions.

During the LOA/SHN period, employers must ensure that employees stay away from the workplace. To minimise any short-term work disruption that may arise due to employees being placed on LOA/SHN, employers should consider allowing such employees to work from home even if they are still allowed to operate in their business premises.

Employers and employees have a joint duty to ensure that employees behave responsibly during the LOA/SHN period. MOM reserves the right to take action against the employer or employee, if they fail to discharge their duty.

Employers who adopt unreasonable practices, such as requiring employees to consume their annual leave entitlements without consent or putting them on no-pay leave, may have their work pass privileges suspended.

Employees who encounter such practices should report the matter to MOM for further action.

4. Staff who are unable or unwilling to attend work?

If employees have to be absent from work due to non-work related reasons to the COVID-19 situation (e.g. caregiving needs for family members or for children who are unable to return to school or childcare), employers should adopt flexible work arrangements to allow the employee to work from home and minimise work disruptions even if they are still allowed to operate in their business premises.

Staff may utilise the number of leave days they are entitled to in accordance with their employment contracts. Employees are entitled to a reasonable amount of unpaid leave to tend to domestic emergencies.

5. If staff cannot attend work, are they entitled to pay?

This will depend on the reason for the non-attendance.

Employers should allow employees on LOA/SHN to work from home and employees who may not be able to remain physically at their workplaces if they have been asked to vacate their work stations or are pending assessment by MOH’s contact tracing officers. If it is not possible for such employees to work from home, employers should exercise flexibility and treat such absences as paid hospitalisation leave or paid outpatient sick leave.

Employees who cannot work because they have been infected with COVID-19 and employees who are placed on quarantine will be deemed to be on paid hospitalisation leave.

A 5-day sick leave is granted to individuals who have respiratory symptoms to allow them to rest at home and to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Employers can treat the 5-day MC given as part of their paid outpatient sick leave under the Employment Act.

Quarantine Orders (QOs) are served on persons by MOH, the period of absence from work necessitated by QOs should be treated as paid hospitalisation leave, as part of the employee’s hospitalisation leave eligibility under their employment contracts, collective agreements, or under the Employment Act.

If an employee were to have insufficient paid outpatient sick leave/paid hospitalisation leave in the future, employers are encouraged to be flexible and compassionate and grant additional paid leave to the employee taking into consideration the prolonged leave used for the COVID-19 situation.

Leave requests by employees who are unable to work due to caring responsibilities should be treated in a reasonable and consistent manner in accordance with their employment contract and the employer’s usual policy.

6. Reporting - Can an employer require staff to report suspected cases of the COVID-19 relating to themselves or those they have come into contact with?

Employers are obliged to take appropriate steps to safeguard the health and safety of their employees at work. They could require employees to fill in health screening questionnaires. On the other hand, for COVID-19 related symptoms, employees who have visited a clinic must submit records of their Medical Certificates and diagnoses to their employers as well as to inform their employers if they were tested for COVID-19 and the results of their tests.

Individual employment contracts may permit health checks. Refusal to undergo a health check when there are reasonable grounds for checking the employee’s health may result in that employee being excluded from the workplace and possibly being denied pay.

Employees could be trained to spot symptoms of COVID-19 and be reminded to adopt good personal hygiene and monitor their health if they are a suspect case. Suspect cases should be advised to consult a doctor as soon as possible if they experience any symptoms regardless of how mild they are.

Pursuant to sections 1(b) of the Second, Third and Fourth Schedules of the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA), personal data may be collected, used and disclosed without consent to conduct contact tracing and other response measures in the event of a COVID-19 case as this is necessary to respond to an emergency that threatens the life, health or safety of other individuals.

If NRIC/FIN/passport numbers are required to accurately identify individuals, these may be collected where necessary for the purposes of contact tracing. Employers who collect such personal data must comply with the Data Protection Provisions of the PDPA, such as ensuring that the personal data is not used for other purposes without consent or authorisation under the law, and making reasonable security arrangements to protect the personal data in their possession from unauthorised disclosure or access. Such personal data should also be expunged when no longer needed for contact tracing purposes.

7. If there is a decreased requirement for staff due to the COVID-19 outbreak, can employers require employees to take annual leave during a shut down period?

Employers should discuss with their employees, as well as union representatives (if any), and mutually agree on the appropriate leave arrangements (e.g. paid annual leave, etc) to be adopted.

In situations where the employer has decided in view of their risk assessment to temporarily suspend operations, the employer should not deduct the wages or leave entitlements of the affected employees without the employees’ consent.

MOM has also introduced mandatory notifications on cost-saving measures where employers are required to notify MOM within 1 week after implementing any cost-saving measures that affects employees’ salaries. This requirement will apply to employers with 10 or more employees. If salaries of foreign employees are being adjusted, employers will also need to separately seek approval from MOM. MOM has indicated that this notification rule would allow MOM to monitor the scope and scale of firms’ cost-cutting measures, and to assess whether more government intervention is needed.

When required, the affected employees should be on standby and ready to return to work.

8. What other contingency planning steps should employers be taking?

Employers should prepare a detailed plan to ensure business continuity upon the occurrence of critical events such as the raising of the ‘Disease Outbreak Response System Condition’ (DORSCON) rating or when an employee or customer is a contact of a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case.

An evacuation plan must be prepared for unwell or suspected COVID-19 cases, as well as for other onsite personnel. Any employee who is feeling unwell or showing symptoms of illness should report to his employer, leave the workplace and consult a doctor immediately, even if symptoms may appear mild. Employers must track and record these cases as part of Safe Management Measures. For incapacitated or unconscious individuals, employers must clear the area of other personnel and administer aid immediately. Employers should call 995 for an emergency ambulance to ferry them to the nearest hospital.

A follow-up plan must be put in place in the event of a confirmed case. Upon being notified of a confirmed case, employers must adopt the following precautionary measures: (i) employers must immediately vacate and cordon-off the immediate section of the workplace premises where the confirmed case worked. There is no need to vacate the building or the whole floor if there had been no sustained and close contact with the confirmed case; and (ii) employers must carry out a thorough cleaning and disinfecting all relevant on-site areas and assets that were exposed to confirmed cases, in accordance to the National Environment Agency guidelines.

Further, employers must establish a system to implement the above Safe Management Measures to provide a safe working environment and minimise risks of COVID-19 outbreaks. These measures must be implemented in a sustainable manner for as long as necessary and shall include: (a) implementing a detailed monitoring plan to ensure compliance with Safe Management Measures and timely resolution of outstanding issues such as following up on non-compliance and efforts to mitigate risks, and (b) appointment Safe Management Officer(s) (SMO) to assist in the implementation, coordination and monitoring of the system of Safe Management Measures at the workplace. Employers must provide appointed SMOs with adequate instruction, information and supervision as is necessary for them to fulfil their required duties. SMOs are strongly encouraged to receive training. The duties of the Officer(s) include: (i) coordinating implementation of Safe Management Measures, including identifying relevant risks, recommending and assisting in implementing measures to mitigate the risks, and communicating the measures to all personnel working in the workplace; (ii) conducting inspections and checks, to ensure compliance at all times. Any non-compliance found during the inspections should be reported and documented; (iii) remedying non-compliance found during the inspections and checks through immediate action; and (iv) keeping records of inspections, checks and correction actions, to be made available upon request by a Government Inspector.

From 12 May 2020 onwards, businesses are required to use SafeEntry, a digital system that allows for automated routing of entry and exit log data to the authorities, for employees and visitors on their premises for as long as it is required by law during the period of COVID-19. Employers must implement safe distancing measures in their business premises for their employees and food and retail establishments must comply with safe distancing measures for patrons and delivery personnel.

9. Where can guidance from the Singapore government and international bodies be found and monitored?

The Singapore government’s website provides the latest official information on COVID-19 in Singapore: https://www.moh.gov.sg/COVID-19/past-updates

The World Health Organization’s information on the COVID-19 may be found here: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019

Other useful links for employers are as follows:

https://www.mom.gov.sg/COVID-19/frequently-asked-questions
https://www.enterprisesg.gov.sg/COVID-19

10. If an employer has a business operation in an affected area, what additional steps should be taken?

Companies operating in affected areas should comply with local regulations and guidance from international bodies such as the World Health Organisation. They may also be subject to local laws requiring them to implement special measures or to notify public health bodies if any of their employees are suspected to be ill.

Beyond compliance with local laws, companies should ensure measures are taken to properly assess the risks to staff and the impact on business continuity and should adapt their plans accordingly.

Our extensive global footprint means that we are well placed to help employers, wherever they have a presence. Our teams across the world have been supporting employers to steer through the legal and practical employment implications raised by the outbreak, including producing a variety of updates.

11. Is there any obligation on a private employer to report any cases or suspect cases of COVID-19 to the relevant local authorities?

Currently, there are no mandatory reporting obligations to authorities for private employers in Singapore. However, a follow-up plan must be put in place in the event of a confirmed case. Upon being notified of a confirmed case, employers must adopt the following precautionary measures: (i) employers must immediately vacate and cordon-off the immediate section of the workplace premises where the confirmed case worked. There is no need to vacate the building or the whole floor if there had been no sustained and close contact with the confirmed case; and (ii) employers must carry out a thorough cleaning and disinfecting all relevant on-site areas and assets that were exposed to confirmed cases, in accordance to the National Environment Agency guidelines. Further, employers should continue to monitor for updates to any change in requirements and respond accordingly.


1 Amendments are made based on the latest updates available at: https://www.moh.gov.sg/covid-19; https://www.ica.gov.sg/covid-19