The economic impact of COVID-19 has not only caused a worldwide lockdown, but it has also affected companies globally. A substantial number have been forced to close or make mass redundancies. Even for those fortunate enough to maintain their workforce, many have adopted alternative working arrangements by reducing salaries or placing employees on unpaid leave. This article considers the key issues Middle East employers need to be aware of when considering returning to work.
Written by Sara Khoja, Rebecca Ford, Emma Higham and Sabrina Saxena
The UAE Authorities recently announced a slight relaxation of the lockdown restrictions coinciding with the holy month of Ramadan. On 22 April 2020, the Dubai Economic Department (DED) announced that certain industries such as construction, retail, transport and construction could reopen subject to compliance with various guidelines and protocols. Similarly, curfews in the major cities in KSA were relaxed during the day and Qatar's industrial area which was largely quarantined in early April has started opening on a road by road basis. Across the Middle East, we are now seeing Governments easing restrictions with a view to rebooting economic activity.
With the resultant opening of a number of business sectors, there is a hope that the economic conditions will improve. Businesses should take care to ensure that the health and safety of employees is properly safeguarded during this period.
There is no legal obligation to provide notice, however from an employee management perspective, we would recommend reasonable notice is given to employees so that they can make any necessary arrangements to return to work.
Where an employee raises a legitimate concern in respect of returning to work, employers are encouraged to listen to employee's concerns and consider whether the company is able to accommodate the employee's request. Where an alternative arrangement is agreed, it should be documented in writing and signed by the employer and the employee.
Strictly speaking, if an employee refuses to return to work without a legitimate reason, this could amount to an unauthorised absence. Employees should be contacted regularly and advised that failure to return to work may amount to a disciplinary sanction. We would recommend that legal advice is sought on a case by case basis before any disciplinary action is taken.
While there is no legal requirement to increase salaries upon an employee's return to work, this largely depends on what was agreed with the employee in respect of the salary reduction, whether this is in the context of the guidelines issued by a regional government or otherwise privately agreed between employer and employee.
If the employees were informed that the salary reduction would be temporary (for example as required by the guidelines in Qatar and Oman), then the salary reduction cannot be enforced permanently. However, subject always to employee agreement, the salary can remain at the reduced rate when returning to work.
The UAE and KSA authorities have recently passed a number of regulations that address non-government companies administering Covid-19 testing.
Given that the requirement to test employees is a legal obligation imposed by the applicable UAE/KSA authorities, where an employee refuses to consent to testing, they should be refused entry.
Priority should be given to protecting staff. Given the need for physical distancing, consideration should be given to the following:
Consideration of a physical adjustment to office layout is important particularly if the office is open plan. In order to enhance preventative measures, employers may be minded to provide disposable mats or coverings which can be placed onto desks and used by employees on a daily basis. Some companies are re-examining air ventilation systems as part of a risk assessment of premises to ensure safety at work.
You may also want to consider marking the floor with stickers to indicate physical distancing especially in areas where employees are likely to congregate such as the reception, meeting rooms and other communal areas.
In compliance with the physical distancing requirements, we would recommend that any visitors are limited, with any attendance being recorded to ensure that capacity levels are carefully monitored.
The UAE Supreme Committee of Crisis Disaster Management has confirmed that daily sterilisation of the workplace is mandatory and employees and guests should be provided with sanitisers at all times.
The UAE Communicable Diseases Law was recently updated to include Covid-19. The penalties under this Law relate to breach of the restrictions placed on someone with a communicable disease or who suspects that they may have. Breach of the law would be a criminal offence. Accordingly, failure to check employees' health could lead to breach of this law and there is a specific penalty for the direct supervisor of the employee. Similar measures have been adopted in Qatar and Oman in those countries' respective communicable/infectious disease laws.
While the relaxation in restrictions has been welcome news for most businesses, there are a number of legal and employee welfare considerations that businesses should be mindful of. Given the evolving nature of the laws and regulations governing the phased return to work, it is essential that businesses seek legal advice when resuming operations to ensure both compliance with the law as well as the health and safety of its employees.