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Coronavirus - Employment law update - Singapore

  • Singapore
  • Coronavirus - Country overview
  • Employment law

17-03-2020

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 to ensure compliance with their legal obligations.

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?

Employers may also consider implementing policies to minimise the risk of employees catching COVID-19 in the workplace. For example, health screening questionnaires for staff members returning from abroad and delaying or cancelling non-essential business travel and meetings.

The Government has advised Singapore travellers to defer all travel to Hubei province and all non-essential travel abroad. Based on the latest situation, the Government has put in place additional border restrictions measures. All travellers (including Singapore residents, long term pass holders and short-term visitors) entering Singapore with recent travel history to ASEAN countries (excluding land and sea crossings with Malaysia), Japan, Switzerland, or the United Kingdom within the last 14 days will be issued with a 14-day Stay-Home Notice (SHN). As previously announced, Singapore residents and long-term pass holders returning from mainland China, Iran, Italy, France, Germany, Republic of Korea, and Spain will continue to be issued a 14 day SHN upon return to Singapore, while short-term visitors from these areas will not be allowed to enter or transit through Singapore.

In addition to the SHN requirement, all short-term visitors who are nationals of any ASEAN country will have to submit requisite information on their health to the Singapore Overseas Mission in the country they are resident before their intended date of travel. The submission will have to be approved by MOH before travel to Singapore. The Singapore Government may extend the border restriction measures to more countries as the global and local situation evolves.

Employees on SHN will be required to remain in their place of residence at all times for a 14-day period. All work pass holders (including dependant’s) with travel history to the affected regions within the last 14 days and planning to enter/return to Singapore will be required to obtain MOM’s approval before they commence their journey.

As the outbreak is spreading, employers should evaluate the risks and assess the need for staff to travel abroad; their right to require staff to travel or work in specific locations; and whether additional measures are necessary to protect staff travelling on business.

These measures may include contingency planning for the possibility of staff being quarantined or falling ill when travelling abroad. Employers should review their current travel and medical health insurance arrangements and whether they are adequate and remain in force.

In relation to work trips abroad, employers should consider the purpose of travel, whether there is an alternative, 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?

As part of employers’ Business Continuity Plans (BCPs), employees can be encouraged to work from home where feasible. Employers can also consider split teams where some employees would work from the office while others work from home to minimise interaction. Employers may wish to procure the necessary equipment and review their work process to facilitate employees to utilise flexible work arrangements.

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 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 could consider allowing employees to work from home.

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 should not require employees who do not have recent travel history to affected region(s), for which the Government has imposed Leave of Absence (LOA) or SHN requirements, to stay away from the workplace. If they wish to do so nonetheless, they must pay these employees their full salaries during this period.

Employers who adopt unreasonable practices, such as requiring employees who are not under Government-imposed LOA/SHN to stay away from their workplace by consuming 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 are encouraged to adopt flexible work arrangements to allow the employee to work from home and minimise work disruptions.

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 may adopt flexible work arrangements to 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 feasible 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.

Home Quarantine Orders (HQOs) are served on persons by MOH, the period of absence from work necessitated by HQOs 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 the leave used for the COVID-19 situation.

Leave requests by employees who are unable to attend 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 upon returning to work from affected areas.

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 tracking 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.

NRIC/FIN/passport numbers are required to accurately identify individuals and 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 and flexible work 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.

The business continuity plan could include:

a) Splitting employees into teams to stagger work arrangements;

b) Allowing employees to go on unpaid leave or work reduced hours. Companies could also grant additional leave days to frontline employees who take on additional risks;

c) Implementing a rotation roster of work shifts for employees with more manual duties and flexible work arrangements for white collar employees;

d) Identifying and tracking employees who are abroad or planning to travel; and

e) Reviewing relevant policies and employee insurance coverage.

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. Employers should monitor for updates to any change in requirements and respond accordingly.

For more information contact

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