Commentary

Navigating work-related issues as Singapore reopens economy

Keep 3 things in mind: necessity to return to workplace, ensuring employees' protection, managing legal issues

All workplaces allowed to operate are required to put safe management measures in place to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus, including staggered shifts and break times and using the SafeEntry app for contact tracing.
All workplaces allowed to operate are required to put safe management measures in place to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus, including staggered shifts and break times and using the SafeEntry app for contact tracing. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

Singaporeans are breathing a sigh of relief with the circuit breaker behind us and further restrictions being eased.

As more businesses are allowed to resume operations, many employers have been asking how they should manage the return to work and ensure they are adhering to safety guidelines.

There are three key considerations they should bear in mind.

CAN I RETURN TO WORK?

Employers must ensure staff telecommute unless a return to the workplace is necessary.

Businesses should refer to the list of permitted services from the multi-ministry task force to check if they can allow staff to return.

While businesses on the list may be allowed to resume operations, the task force has clarified that all employees who have been working from home should continue to do so and return only when it is clearly necessary for purposes that cannot be carried out via telecommuting.

So telecommuting remains the default position for businesses.

MAKING SURE THAT YOUR EMPLOYEES ARE PROTECTED

Employers need to implement safety measures to allow staff to return to the workplace.

Government guidelines outline that employers must:

• Establish a system to implement safe management measures to minimise risks of Covid-19 outbreaks;

• Implement a detailed monitoring plan to ensure compliance with these measures and timely resolution of outstanding issues; and

• Appoint safe management officers to help implement and monitor the safe management measures.

 
 
 
 

Additionally, businesses and office building operators will need to ensure that they control access, including making sure that all employees and visitors use SafeEntry to record entries and exits.

They also need to implement health checks, including temperature screening, health declaration forms and protocols, to manage potential Covid-19 cases.

Employees should also note other sector-specific requirements that have been prepared by regulators and oversight bodies.

MANAGING LEGAL ISSUES AND DISPUTES

Two major legal issues could arise.

Businesses thinking of bringing back employees must consider two key things:

• Can employees continue working from home as the default mode? Under what circumstances may an employer request a staff member to return to the workplace?

• Are employees able to justify refusing to return, for example, due to concerns about contracting the virus in public areas and their workplaces?

Employers are under a duty to take reasonably practicable measures to ensure the safety of all employees at work. They should review the work processes of their employees to determine whether a return to the office is necessary.

Where possible, they should provide the technology to enable remote working. However, this brings issues in relation to confidentiality of company and personal information and cyber-security concerns.

All staff members should ideally be using company-approved devices that are protected with security software.

Employers should also implement security measures such as multi-factor authentication to grant employees access to company servers and information to help protect assets and information.

Employees must be mindful of how and what they communicate through channels like phone calls, online conferencing such as Zoom, social media and text messages.

Staff working from home should also be reminded to comply with government advisories on stay-home notices and safe distancing.

Businesses and employers are liable if staff members flout the rules while at work.

Ministry of Manpower officials are conducting workplace checks to ensure businesses comply with safe distancing and other measures.

The safe distancing measures have legal force under the Covid-19 (Temporary Measures) Act 2020. Breaches can lead to fines or an order forcing a company to stop work immediately and make rectifications.

Employers may also be liable to employees for a breach of their safety and health obligations.

• The writer is a principal at law firm Baker McKenzie Wong & Leow.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2020, with the headline 'Navigating work-related issues as Singapore reopens economy'. Subscribe