Navigating UAE employment risks in a post-Covid world

Out-Law Analysis | 15 Jan 2021 | 12:25 pm | 3 min. read

As we enter a new year HR managers, general counsel and senior directors of businesses in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) appear to be more optimistic about the economic opportunities ahead.

As we enter a new year HR managers, general counsel and senior directors of businesses in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) appear to be more optimistic about the economic opportunities ahead.

However, with news of a more virulent strain of Covid-19 spreading internationally and the continuing impact of the pandemic on business travel, client meetings and office attendance, it is important for companies and HR managers to continue to be proactive, mindful and practical in relation to their workforce management.

Impact of the new Covid-19 strain

Reports emerged at the end of 2020 of a new strain of coronavirus, VU202012/01, originating in the UK, which appears to be up to 70% more transmissible than previous strains.

It is important for companies and HR managers to continue to be proactive, mindful and practical in relation to their workforce management.

In practical terms, this means that the virus is now able to spread faster among groups of people, and seems to need less time and contact to pass between person to person. It is important to note that the actual virus does not appear more deadly, however, it is more contagious.

Employers should:

  • review their current office attendance policy and encourage employees to work from home where appropriate and practical;
  • ensure social contact is kept to a minimum where possible, with 'social distancing' measures remaining in place;
  • remind employees that the risk of contracting Covid-19 remains and that they should continue to apply good hygiene, including mask wearing and hand washing when in contact with colleagues and in communal areas; and
  • continue to remind employees of best practice with regards to mask wearing and social distancing.

Ongoing travel restrictions

In response to the new strain, several countries have reintroduced travel restrictions up to and including banning flights from particular locations. As well as these logistical challenges, there are also health risks in travelling which companies should take into consideration.

Employers should:

  • review travel policies and consider how the business intends to treat employees who are unable to return to work as planned due to travel restrictions. In particular, if the business intends to place employees who are unable to return to work on unpaid leave, this should be clearly set out in a policy for employees to understand. We recommend reminding employees of such policies before they undertake any overseas travel;
  • keep overseas travel for business meetings limited to avoid disruption and potential impact on key personnel, making use of video conferencing and calls instead;
  • consider extra caution with employees who have recently travelled abroad, perhaps requiring them to work from home for a period of 7-10 days from their return to the UAE in order to minimise the risk of infection spread by asymptomatic employees; and
  • consider using and engaging workforces remotely, rather than requiring employees to travel to different office or client locations to perform particular roles.

Vaccine considerations

On a positive note, successful vaccines to immunise against Covid-19 are already being administered in the UAE.

Employers should:

  • bear in mind that vaccination, while a welcome step in the road to combatting Covid-19, is not mandatory. It would not be considered lawful or best practice to require any employee to have the Covid-19 vaccination if they are reluctant to do so;
  • consult with employees where there is a legitimate requirement for a person to be vaccinated in order to undertake their role before making any final decisions; and
  • allow employees to consult their own medical practitioners and make an informed choice regarding vaccination. Consider whether to issue employees with some guidance or an employer policy on vaccination including whether, for example, employees will be permitted to obtain this on company time.

External meetings and events

In addition to global travel restrictions, some parts of the world have reintroduced national lockdowns to try and limit the spread of the new strain.

As well as these logistical challenges, there are also health risks in travelling which companies should take into consideration.

The UAE does not currently have a strict lockdown in place, which gives companies more discretion as to how they manage client and third party meetings. However, employers should consider whether to issue guidance or policy advice in relation to client and third party meetings. These events continue to carry health and reputational risks during the current stage of the pandemic.

Changes to employee terms and conditions

Many employers had to implement short term salary reductions or introduce periods of mandatory unpaid leave in 2020, to address the challenges and trading difficulties caused by lockdowns and the global pandemic. The market outlook for 2021 appears to be more optimistic, and we hope that such measures will be less common in the short to medium term future.

Employers should:

  • manage budgets tightly and be as transparent with employees as possible in respect of financial performance of the business and the outlook for the year ahead;
  • be aware of their obligations under the UAE Labour Law where it is necessary to implement cost saving measures, including the need to obtain employee consent to changes to contractual terms and conditions;
  • consider using the new year as an opportunity to review contracts and policies, putting them in the best position possible should changes need to be introduced quickly.

Co-written by Andrea Hewitt-Sims, Ruth Stephen and Michael Chattle of Pinsent Masons.