Workplace Issues & COVID-19 in Asia Pacific
The World Organisation (WHO) has now upgraded the status of the COVID-19 outbreak from epidemic to pandemic. It is a global health threat and is causing unprecedented disruption.
Although many companies have business continuity plans in place, very few of these address the specific employment issues arising out of an outbreak of a virus like COVID-19 which appears to be highly contagious but generally symptomless early in the infection stage. This raises numerous workplace issues including:
- refusal to attend work
- enforced working from home
- sickness benefits during self-isolation
- workplace health and safety
- data privacy and confidentiality
- business travel restrictions
Most countries now have mandatory quarantine requirements in place for anyone testing positive for the virus. Many governments are going further and imposing self-isolation or quarantine requirements for incoming travellers (irrespective of where they have travelled from) and restricting non-citizens / residents from entering their country. The public has have been advised not to travel unless it is essential. Many offices and business, particularly those in high risk jurisdictions, including Mainland China, Hong Kong and Singapore, have already introduced voluntary infection control measures such as requiring any employee who may have been exposed to anyone confirmed as having the virus, to work from home. However, even for those already making plans it appears that the spread of the virus is likely to outpace those preparations and employers need to be flexible and be prepared to react to the situation which is developing at an alarming pace.
So what can employers do to address the specific challenges they face?
Kennedys is issuing a series of e-bulletins providing employers in several key APAC jurisdictions with guidance on how to deal with the impact the spread of COVID-19 is likely to have on their workforce. This provides answers to the key questions we anticipate employers will have.
COVID-19 is rapidly encroaching on all facets of Australian life and business. Regrettably, known cases of COVID-19 in Australia are presently increasing. Businesses are naturally concerned about the health and safety of their workforce and ensuring ‘BAU’ as far as possible. This bulletin is intended to provide some clarity amongst the confusion for employers asking the question: what are my obligations under Australian employment law?
Hong Kong is fortunate to have a world class health system. Perhaps more importantly it has extensive experience and expertise in the management of epidemics of infectious diseases gained as a result of relatively recent outbreaks of SARS in 2003 and H1N1 (Swine flu) in 2009.
The immediate impact of COVID-19 in Hong Kong has been very similar to that of SARS back in 2003. Public places are disinfected several times a day, as are shops, office buildings etc. Despite these measures, many are avoiding going out to restaurants, shops, cinemas and other entertainment venues. Hospitals and other healthcare facilities are on high alert and under considerable pressure. Schools remain closed although most are providing students with online classes.
The memory Hong Kong people have of SARS has led to them adopting voluntary infection containment measures such as wearing face masks and regular hand washing/sanitising. Some may have considered these measures to amount to panic but they do appear, at least for the moment, to have been relatively effective in slowing down the spread of the virus in Hong Kong. But no one can afford to be complacent.
COVID-19 has already been severely disruptive for employers in Hong Kong, particularly those in the travel, hotel/hospitality, entertainment and retail sectors. This looks likely to continue to do so for some time. During these challenging times, employers need to be mindful of their obligations to their employees under health and safety legislation, employment and anti-discrimination laws and the potentially more serious business interruption issues which may arise if they do not take steps to address these issues.
On 7 February 2020, due to heightened risk caused by the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, the Singapore government raised the country’s outbreak alert level to Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (“DORSCON”) orange. The Singapore government has since remained vigilant in setting up multiple lines of defences to contain the virus, and to prevent community spread amongst residents, having improved and strengthened its defensive measures based on insights gleaned from experience - most significantly during the outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (“SARS”) in 2003. These include strict screening measures at airports, the imposition of travel restrictions, the suspension of Visas, and rigorous contact tracing to identify transmission clusters. These measures have proven relatively successful in limiting any unbridled spread of the virus in our island-state. As of 13 March 2020, there are 200 confirmed cases in Singapore, and no fatalities from the disease thus far.
The outbreak of COVID-19 is expected to affect Singapore’s economy significantly. On 16 February 2020, the Ministry of Trade and Industry of Singapore (“MTI”) has slashed Singapore's economic growth forecast for 2020 amid the COVID-19 outbreak, from a range of 0.5% - 2.5% to -0.5% - 1.5%. In particular, the MTI notes that the outbreak of COVID-19 has impacted Singapore’s tourism, transport, retail and F&B sectors, due to the travel restrictions imposed by Singapore and by other countries, and has caused a reduction in domestic consumption in Singapore as locals reduce activities such as shopping and eating out. To mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on their operations and to ensure business continuity, many employers have voluntarily taken precautionary measures to minimise any spread of the COVID-19 amongst its employees.
Currently, the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak has spread across the world and the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that COVID-19 could be characterized as a pandemic (WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on 11 March 2020). People and outbound travelers are recommended to closely monitor the situation. Moreover, the public must fully cooperate and act as the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) recommends for your safety and for the safety of others, and to decrease the negative social and economic impacts.