Coronavirus: Employers in Singapore must allow staff to work from home or risk penalties

Office workers buying food to go at Amoy Street Food Centre on March 26, 2020.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

SINGAPORE – Employers must allow their staff to work from home as far as possible or risk facing penalties, said the multi-ministry task force handling the coronavirus outbreak.

The Manpower Ministry is looking to amend laws to increase potential penalties - including stop-work orders and fines - for firms who fail to implement these advisories.

"Employers must allow your employees to work from home as far as reasonably practicable," said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo at a press conference on Tuesday (March 31).

"This applies to all workplaces regardless of size, and it should be for all times, all days, and not some times, some days."

Noting the worrying trend of local cases rising, the task force also stressed the importance of safe distancing to protect vulnerable groups like seniors, who are at a higher risk of catching Covid-19.

Said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the task force: "If Singaporeans all come together to truly take to heart all these safe distancing measures, we have a good chance of slowing down the virus."

As of noon on Tuesday, 47 new cases had been confirmed. Of these, 31 were local cases, with 13 linked to existing clusters or individuals, while 18 remained unlinked.

Tuesday's numbers bring Singapore's total to 926. There remain 423 cases in hospitals, with 22 patients critically ill and in intensive care. There have been three deaths.

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Among the linked cases, certain patterns have emerged, said Associate Professor Kenneth Mak, the director of medical services. Many were linked by activity, including social gatherings, workplaces or being members of the same household, he said.

Mrs Teo said that telecommuting is a critical part of safe distancing, particularly in workplaces.

"There is a lot of scope for us to do more, especially the private sector firms," she said.

She noted that the public sector has taken the lead in adapting to the changed work environment.

For example, the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Infocomm Media Development Authority allow 90 per cent of their employees to telecommute.

While some private companies such as Bloomberg have also done "exceedingly well", she estimated that only 40 per cent of workers in the Central Business District currently work from home.

She said MOM will be stepping up enforcement in coming weeks.

But she also reassured firms that a "measured approach" will be taken when it comes to punishment meted out in what is already a period of economic hardship for many companies.

"I should say it is not our intention to simply issue a stop-work order without considering the circumstances of the companies," she said.

"We are looking for evidence that companies have made serious attempts to implement stay-at-home telecommuting arrangements but we are also mindful that this is not always possible," she said, citing manufacturing firms as an example.

"But one thing is very clear - 100 per cent is better than 80, 80 is better than 60. So even if companies have implemented some telecommuting measures, we will ask the important question of whether we can do more," she said.

Mr Wong said that outside the workplace, social gatherings are another area in which Singaporeans can do more,

He noted that many people have asked whether they can hold gatherings in their home with the limit of 10 people.

"But that really misses the point," he said.

Added Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, who co-chairs the task force: "It is not a question of whether you can or you cannot (do these things), the key question is whether you need to have these activities."

Tuesday's conference was the first held virtually with reporters dialling in.

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The task force members stressed the importance of keeping seniors safe.

People should wash their hands before interacting with the elderly. If ill, they should not visit seniors, the ministers said.

The elderly have shown a higher risk of developing serious conditions, both internationally and in Singapore, when they become infected. 

Mr Wong also addressed suggestions that Singapore should take more drastic measures now, such as locking down the country for two weeks.

"There is no such magic solution as a two-week lockdown and then we are free from the virus," he said.

"It will not happen. We could do more drastic measures sooner but even if we were to do that, we will not eradicate the virus."

Singapore is in this "for the long haul" and it sees the various measures it has taken as a series of "brakes", he reiterated.

These include how patients with acute respiratory symptoms risk a fine or jail term if they leave their homes while on sick leave.

The Health Ministry has also imposed stricter measures to limit gatherings outside of work and school to 10 persons or fewer, and ensure that physical distancing of at least 1m is maintained in settings where interactions are non-transient.

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.