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COVID-19 Singapore: Suspension of workplace activities and what it means for employers

  • Market Insight 6 April 2020 6 April 2020
  • Asia Pacific

  • Coronavirus

COVID-19 Singapore: Suspension of workplace activities and what it means for employers

Background

On 3 April 2020, the Singapore government announced an elevated set of safe distancing measures (the “Elevated Measures”) which will take effect from 7 April 2020 to 4 May 2020 (both dates inclusive) (the “Circuit Breaker Period”). Similar to other jurisdictions, it is possible that the Circuit Breaker Period may be extended if the Singapore government feels that the COVID-19 outbreak has not been adequately contained in Singapore nearing the end of the Circuit Breaker Period.

These “circuit breaker” measures include the suspension of activities at workplaces, other than certain prescribed “essential services” (the “Essential Services”).

What are Essential Services?

A list of Essential Services is set out in more detail on the Singapore GoBusiness website (click here). These primarily include activities in the health and social services, food, energy, waste, water, environment, transportation and storage, information and communications, defence and security, construction, facilities management and critical public infrastructure, manufacturing and distribution, certain prescribed legal services, banking and finance and some other prescribed industries.

It would be important for organisations to review the above-mentioned website periodically to ensure that their activities are considered Essential Services. Alternatively, an organisation can contact the Enterprise Infoline at +65 6898 1800 to enquire further.

If an organisation’s activities are considered Essential Services, it is still required to declare, by the end of 13 April 2020, under the “General Exemption” field on the above-mentioned website (click here) that it conducts Essential Services. The Singapore government has indicated that it will respond within 48 hours from the date of declaration.

If an organisation conducts Essential Services and submits its declaration on the above-mentioned website late (or not in time before the commencement of the Circuit Breaker Period), it can still continue with operations (with the appropriate safe distancing measures in place at its workplace) until they are told otherwise.

What does this mean for entities whose business activities are not Essential Services?

Entities whose business activities are not Essential Services are not allowed to operate from their workplace premises. However:

(a) if they are able to continue to operate their businesses (whether in limited or full capacity) with their employees working from home, they can continue to do so. All other business activities that cannot be conducted through work from home arrangements shall be suspended during the Circuit Breaker Period; and

(b) it could submit a general “Application for exemption from suspension of business activities” via the above-mentioned website to be generally exempted from the suspension during the Circuit Breaker Period (“General Exemption”); or

(c) it could submit a time-limited “Applying for exemption for a limited period of time” via the above-mentioned website to be exempted from the suspension for a limited period of time during the Circuit Breaker Period (“Time Limited Exemption”).

Entities whose business activities are not Essential Services should not operate their business from their respective workplace premises until they receive approval of a General Exemption or a Time Limited Exemption.

What does this mean for employees?

Entities who (i) carry out Essential Services; or (ii) carry out non-Essential Services with approval of a General Exemption or a Time Limited Exemption, would still need to abide by the Infectious Diseases (Workplace Measures To Prevent Spread Of Covid-19) Regulations 2020 (the "Regulations") published on 1 April 2020, which applies during the control period from 2 April 2020 to 30 April 2020. (link here)

The Regulations aim to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by requiring employers to implement, where possible, telecommuting and safe distancing measures. Employers, who are in breach of any part of the Regulations without reasonable excuse, shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding S$10,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months or to both.

In summary, the Regulations provide for:

1. Employers, principals and occupiers to implement telecommuting.

Employers, principals and occupiers must direct workers (including contractors, subcontractors and their respective employees) to work from home and provide the necessary facilities for workers to work from home during the control period, unless it is not reasonably practicable.

Though there is no guidance as to what is deemed reasonably practicable, the onus will likely be on employers or principals who fail to implement such measures to prove that it is not reasonably practicable to do so. In determining the definition of “reasonably practicable”, until more guidance is provided by the Singapore authorities, it appears prima facie that one can rely on Singapore case law which suggests that risk computation will be involved and as such, there must not be a "gross disproportion" between the costs of implementing the prescribed telecommuting measures and the risk of the spread of COVID-19.

Organisations are encouraged to document their thought process in particular on why it is NOT reasonably practicable for certain employees to work from home. As an example, subject to further guidance by the Singapore authorities, back-end logistical roles where employees are required to be present at a workplace to print and bind huge volumes of paperwork for clients may be considered to be “reasonably practicable” as it may outweigh the cost of providing such industrial equipment to each of these employees at their homes.

2. Safe distancing measures by employers and principals.

Employers and principals must implement the following measures:

(a) Place workers in 2 or more groups (ie split teams) to avoid or minimise physical interaction between workers in different groups.

(b) Workers should not all arrive at and leave the workplace at the same time.

(c) Any worker who exhibits any of the specified symptoms (ie coughing, sneezing, breathlessness and runny nose) or is physically unwell is required to immediately inform the employer or principal.

(d) The employer or principal must take reasonable steps to ensure that there is a distance of at least one metre between any 2 individuals in the workplace.

Without limiting (d) above, the employer or principal must take all reasonable steps to implement the following in the workplace:

(i) Ensure that seats are at least one metre away from any other seats at all times or alternate seats are demarcated as seats not to be occupied.

(ii) Where individuals may form a queue or remain in an area (eg pantry, waiting room or changing room etc) ensure that every individual is at least one metre away from any other individual in the queue or area.

(iii) Ensure that all individuals (other than workers) entering the workplace do not arrive at the same time and do not remain in the workplace longer than necessary.

All organised activity involving interaction between individuals must be cancelled or postponed except for the following:

(a) any activity critical to the employer’s or principal’s operations;

(b) any activity where workers are provided professional or vocational training or are tested or certified for any professional or vocational purposes; or

(c) any activity where workers are provided education by an educational institution.

3. Communications by employers and principals.

Employers or principals must, as far as reasonably practicable communicate to all workers and other affected individuals the measures implemented under the Regulations which apply to them.

4. Obligations of occupiers.

Occupiers of a workplace must implement the following measures:

(a) As far as reasonably practicable, allow natural ventilation of the workplace during working hours.

(b) Take the temperature of every individual entering the workplace and to visually ascertain whether the individual displays any specified symptom.

(c) Collecting the contact particulars of individuals (other than workers who ordinarily works in the workplace) entering the workplace.

(d) Refusing entry to any individual who is febrile (ie having or showing symptoms of fever), displays any specified symptom or refuses to comply with (b) and (c).

(e) Take reasonable steps to implement the safe distancing measures listed out in 2 above.

(f) Where an individual in the workplace is found by the occupier to be febrile or to display any specified symptom:

(i) Ensure the individual wears a face mask;

(ii) Ensure the individual leaves the workplace immediately; and

(iii) If the individual is not able to leave the workplace immediately, isolate the individual.

5. Workers and other individuals subject to movement control measure.

An employer or a principal must not require or permit anyone who is subjected to a movement control measure (eg stay home notices or quarantine orders) to enter the workplace.

An occupier must refuse entry of any individual who is or who the occupier believes is subject to a movement control measure.

6. Obligations of workers and other individuals.

A worker or other individual who exhibits any of the specified symptoms or is febrile must not enter any workplace.

In addition, workers and other individuals must comply with any requirements implemented by the employer or principal, in compliance with the Regulations.

Enforcement by Singapore authorities

Officers from the Ministry of Manpower of Singapore have already started conducting enforcement operations and will continue to do so during the Circuit Breaker Period to ensure that the Regulations are complied with, and the Elevated Measures adopted by organisations.

The Ministry of Manpower of Singapore has also made clear that it will be strict in enforcing (and we imagine quick in “name-shaming” organisations) in the event it determines that the Regulations are not complied with by certain organisations or if the Elevated Measures are not adopted by organisations. This may also include stop work orders, whereby organisations are required to stop work immediately and to make immediate rectifications.


Please don't hesitate to contact us if you have questions on the Elevated Measures. 

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