A Global Lens on Current COVID-19 Business Impacts
As the global landscape continues to evolve with COVID-19 vaccines and cases, return to work, at-home or hybrid work situations, we have compiled a peek into a few specific country updates to share some of the current differences. With the continued changes, we are keeping an eye on local regulations and impacts to our clients and businesses around the world.
Below are in-the-moment updates from Associates SIET in China, Delta-Simons in the UK, and Antea Group in Brazil.
Can you provide a brief update on the current situation in your location?
COVID-19 presents a big challenge to tourism and international trading industries. A few of the chain hotels, restaurants, even some airlines went bankrupt, not to mention smaller businesses. Tour agents focusing on international travels have been greatly affected while the national market has expanded. When it comes to international trading, the market is also greatly affected by policies and conditions in different nations. Despite that, most places in mainland China are gradually getting back to normal since April 2020. There are occasional regional rebound of the epidemics, but in general the economy and lifestyles are not much affected. All cases now are coming from overseas travel.
My trip to Wuhan during Chinese New Year seemed to be ordinary. There were no special requirements on medical tests for travelers from low-risk areas. There were a lot of people visiting points of interest during the recent national holiday. People are used to their masks and continue wearing them, although there have been no diagnosed cases in the whole province.
As the first city experiencing COVID-19, Wuhan suffered a lot during the first few months. People kept talking about their experiences during the city lockdown. Constructors of Fire God Mountain Hospital, the first emergency hospital constructed during the epidemic, spoke with us about their fears of infection while they kept working during this time. Things have come very far in Wuhan from being original location of COVID-19 and lockdowns to a now busy city open for business and tourism again.
Whilst there are subtle differences within the rules between our devolved authorities (the Governments of England, Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly). We are all in lockdown and people are only allowed out currently to shop (for food), to exercise, go to work (if your work cannot be done from home), to care for someone who is vulnerable, or to escape domestic or other abuse.
The devolved administrations have released roadmaps out of the current lockdown with a phased approach to lifting restrictions over the upcoming 4-5 months (dependent on analysis of various indicators including vaccine roll out, COVID-19 case numbers and hospital admissions / occupancy).
Generally, Delta-Simons staff are working from home and there was only a brief stay in our ability to undertake field / site work in April 2020. We now have measures in place to ensure all our workplaces are ‘COVID secure’ and we can work safely on sites. Our Environment, Health and Safety teams have been carrying out virtual audits.
Currently all our employees are working at home and only go to the central office for a brief period of time to take physical documents and equipment when necessary. The only exception is for the drilling team, that works on the clients’ sites to investigate and remediate soil, but they are following the hygiene basics in order to prevent COVID-19.
As for the local situation, São Paulo follows the government plan against COVID-19, which determines the level of restriction for commercial places according to the hospitals' beds disposed to treat COVID-19. If the hospitals are too crowded with cases, the level of restrictions increase and commercial businesses may shut down or decrease their operating time during the day.
There are four levels of restriction (Red, Orange, Yellow and Green). Today we are at the yellow level, which means these businesses are allowed to have a limited crowd of up to 40% capacity and are able to be open only 12 hours (After 6am and before 10pm).
Can employers require a vaccine?
As most of the areas in China are considered low-risk, we have not seen a great demand for vaccination at this period of time. At this stage, the key populations for COVID-19 vaccination mainly include those who are engaged in importing, port quarantine inspection, ship piloting, aviation, fresh food market, public transportation, medical disease control and other industries with a relatively high risk of infection, as well as personnel going to medium-to-high-risk countries or regions for work, study etc.
There is a lot of debate on this from the general public but also amongst employment law legal professionals. The vast majority of the public are strongly in favour of having the vaccine with a nominal, but vocal, minority protesting that they do not want it. Amongst the employment law community, the general view is that an instruction to take the vaccine could be regarded as a ‘reasonable instruction,’ but it is a stronger argument if they are in the social care or health service than in an office or manufacturing facility. Failure to comply with a reasonable instruction can lead to a ‘fair dismissal’ and has to be measured on the merits of each case, e.g. a person with a condition that prevents them having it, someone with a phobia about needles, and or someone who just refuses it. The case is perhaps stronger making it a requirement for new hires than imposing it on existing staff, where an emphasis on encouragement to have the vaccine might be considered to be the best approach.
There may, however, be issues relating to indirect discrimination if people with the vaccine are treated differently to those who do not have it. For instance, not paying sick pay to someone who has not had the vaccine who subsequently caught COVID-19, or in the context of performance review and management issues where business travel to countries which impose vaccination as an entry requirement is integral to the employee's role.
The Brazilian population will be vaccinated according to the government's vaccination plan, which is making vaccines available in health centers. The vaccination plan states that health workers, indigenous people and quilombolas will be vaccinated first, then the elderly, and so on until it reaches the youngest. Right now, the elderly are being vaccinated. The people included in this vaccination plan can complete a registration form to arrange the date of their vaccination.
Do at-home workers have the same health and safety rights as those in offices? Is there a difference between temporary/permanent at-home workers?
At-home workers have the same health and safety rights as those in offices, although their working environment may differ. According to regulation, for instance, employees can apply work injuries as long as the injury is in the workplace (home is also considered as workplace as agreed by the employer and employee) during working hours and the injury is due to work reasons. There is no difference between temporary and permanent workers on this aspect. As the COVID-19 is well managed in China, most of the employees are now back to their offices.
The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) still classes the ‘COVID-19 work from home’ instructions as ‘temporary,’ although realistically much of the UK’s office staff have been doing it since late March 2020. Contractual circumstances between formal ‘office’ and formal ‘home’ workers have typically not changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. This creates a grey area with regards to the extent of employers’ responsibilities towards ‘temporary’ home workers. However, employers still need to ensure that all their employees (home or office based) are able to complete their work activities in a safe manner. This generally requires employers to ensure that all activities are risk assessed, suitable control measures are implemented, and these are communicated to remote working employees.
At-home workers, temporary or permanent, are under the health and safety team supervision of their company. As described in rights and duties in the Regulatory Norm 1, these workers have to follow the health and safety legislation and conducts of the company, the same way that the company has to provide all the health and safety support to their employees. The vaccine itself is being provided by the government at its health centers.
Concerning vaccines, support might include:
- Internal campaigns sharing COVID-19 risks and its vaccines as a controlling method. This could include sharing e-mail, banners or even doing specialized online lectures.
- Describing COVID-19 risks and controls in our preliminary risk assessments.
- Describing it as a biological risk and considering vaccines as a controlling method in the health and safety documents.
Do you think in the future the government or companies themselves will determine how these regulations work?
As the government regulation covers the health and safety for all kinds of workplaces, personally, I do not see their motivation to change the policy. However, it is more difficult to clarify if the injury occurred during the actual work hours, as employees may be more flexible in time when working from home. These difficulties of proof may need to be handled by the employer. Because the working environment will differ at home and in the offices/plants, we have observed a few companies providing work from home instructions and fundings for necessary facilities, although it was not a compliance requirement.
It will be the responsibility of employers to ensure the welfare of their employees in line with whatever regulations are in place; however, there is always the possibility of enforcement by the Regulator, if there are breaches either through random inspections, investigation of an incident, or from information from an informant/whistleblower.
Only the government has the power to decide how these regulations are going to work; therefore, a lot of politics are involved. As a company, we wait on their final decision on how this could be supported by law.
In closing, as a global Alliance we will continue to monitor progress and changes to regulations related to COVID-19 and different working situations that may impact businesses and our clients. For more specific information on different locations, check out our associate pages to get in touch with us!