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29 July 2020
As the current COVID-19 lockdown restrictions start to ease, businesses in the United Arab Emirates have begun allowing employees to return to the workplace. However, the business landscape that businesses now face is very different to just a few months ago. This article outlines employers' obligations during the next phase of business from an employment law perspective, including with regard to the reopening of businesses and protecting employee health and safety as they look to adapt to this new normal.
As part of the easing of the COVID-19 lockdown, the UAE authorities have relaxed office working restrictions and, from 3 June 2020, all private sector offices in Dubai have been able to return to 100% capacity staffing levels. Employers must consider how they will facilitate employees returning to the workplace, comply with government guidelines and provide a safe working environment.
The government has issued guidance to employers which encourages them to adopt specific measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 in line with three key principles:
Who should return to workplaces and when?
The guidelines do not specifically address the timing of employees returning to work. However, from a practical perspective and while addressing business requirements, employers are encouraged to be empathetic to individuals' personal circumstances and the ongoing impact that the pandemic may be having on them. Depending on the type of work carried out, some employees might be more productive if they can continue to work remotely for an additional period.
The guidelines state that if higher-risk employees are returning to work, they should be separated from other employees (eg, in different offices). As such, employers should ensure that they have identified any high-risk employees and taken appropriate steps.
How should employers handle employees who refuse without good grounds to return to the workplace?
Unless an employee is on sick leave or holiday, requiring them to return to work is a reasonable instruction from employers. Employers should clearly communicate their position on returning to work to employees (eg, that unless an employee has informed the company that they are unable to return to the workplace, the expectation is that employees must return or risk facing a disciplinary procedure). If the company's expectations are clearly set out in writing and information is communicated to them regarding the company's return-to-work arrangements (as described further below), employees are more likely to return to work and employers have certainty over who is considered high risk.
Implementing physical distancing measures
The guidelines highlight the importance of employers implementing physical distancing measures in the workplace, including:
Maintaining good hygiene
Employers must provide employees with a safe workplace. Implementing hygiene awareness campaigns (eg, video instructions or posters) reminding employees of their obligations could form a key part of this overarching obligation. Employers should also:
Evaluating and managing health risks
The guidelines stress the importance of employers continually evaluating and managing health risks, encouraging employers to:
Communicating return-to-work arrangements with employees
There is no obligation to consult with employees before they return to work. However, employers should clearly communicate a return-to-work plan. This will help to alleviate any employee concerns and facilitate a phased return to the workplace. Return-to-work communications should set out:
With everyone working in different sectors, a one-size-fits-all approach will not be suitable. Employers' return-to-work plan must be tailored specifically to their business. As mixed messages among employees are likely, employers should expect a level of confusion. Therefore, providing something as simple as a circular communication could really help.
International employers whose head office is in, for example, the United Kingdom, will need to tailor their return-to-work plan specifically for their UAE offices.
Managing employees who cannot return to the United Arab Emirates
How should employers manage employees who left the United Arab Emirates earlier during the pandemic and have since been unable to return to the country? Some employees are gradually being able to return to the United Arab Emirates and the government is updating its requirements and obligations for employers on a day-to-day basis. In general, anyone re-entering the United Arab Emirates must self-quarantine for 14 days. As employers must keep employees safe, they must be in contact with returning employees on a day-to-day basis and have them fill out a form, providing details about:
All of these questions are reasonable and proportionate.
If employees refuse to return to the United Arab Emirates, employers will have to make difficult decisions. For example, if the employee's job is business critical and must be performed in the workplace, termination might be the only option. Employers must consider various factors such as whether the employee:
Due to the impact of COVID-19, many companies have implemented part-time working, which will have a significant impact on the market going forward. Other trends that will likely emerge in the wake of the pandemic are:
During phase one of the pandemic (March 2020 and April 2020), companies responded to the pandemic and attempted to maintain business activities as much as possible (eg, by implementing remote working).
During phase two, companies are focused on not just surviving the pandemic, but thriving where possible. Companies are considering how they can better communicate with employees and clients (eg, webinars) and how they can upscale internally in this new world by looking at opportunities and improving parts of the business.
Phase three of the pandemic will see businesses and working arrangements evolving in the post-COVID-19 era. A new way of working will emerge which will be economy, client and employee driven. The sooner that companies can get on board with this new way of working, the more effectively they will emerge from the pandemic. Companies should start having conversations with employees, clients and the board now and consider, for example, what new HR terms or policies they need to include in employment contracts, what the new way of working looks like in their industry and organisation and how they can make the most of it to become a more streamlined organisation and interact with clients in an effective way.
For further information on this topic please contact Luke Tapp, Ruth Stephen or Michael Chattle at Pinsent Masons by telephone (+971 4 373 9700) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org). The Pinsent Masons website can be accessed at www.pinsentmasons.com.
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