Coronavirus in UAE: Know your current rights as an employee
An employer is currently legally entitled to have their employees work from the office
Tourists wear protective face masks, following the outbreak of the new coronavirus, as they walk at the Grand Souq in old Dubai, United Arab Emirates March 2, 2020.
By Rachel McArthur, ZAWYA
While a complete lockdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak is yet to be announced in the UAE, the government on Monday called upon the public to stay at home except in cases of necessity, including getting essential supplies, such as food and medicine, or performing jobs.
However, there remains confusion over why some employers continue to make employees go to their offices despite feasible “working from home” arrangements.
Examples include those working in PR and social media agencies, the sales departments of banks and other institutions, and schools and universities (which are closed, but some staff are still being made to report on campus nonetheless).
To clarify the legal rights of employees at this time, Zawya spoke to Michael Kortbawi, Partner at BSA Ahmad Bin Hezeem & Associates, who acknowledged that it is a difficult situation for both employers and employees.
“Dubai strives on connectivity, and in the absence of this crucial element, it will be difficult to sustain any business in the coming three month as the current workload diminishes and eventually disappears,” he said. “[But] we have noted that many companies have understood the severity of the crisis, and have implemented measures to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak [such as] encouraging and even rewarding employees who work from home.” At this time, however, it remains perfectly legal for employers to expect employees to work from their workplace. Below are your current rights as an employee in the UAE. These are subject to change as further updates come in from the government.
1. An employer is currently legally entitled to have their employees work from the office
Until the UAE government makes it mandatory for all citizens and residents to stay at home, any employer that requires their employees to work as usual – such as from the office, for example – “is not in breach of any law or regulation,” says Kortbawi.
“To date, the government has only issued recommendations to limit interactions and have employees work from home where possible.
“Contrary to popular belief, these recommendations do not constitute binding regulations precluding employers to have their employees work as usual, and, vice-versa, compelling employees to work from home. [So, for example] employees can [continue to] work from the office, should they wish to do so.” He noted: “As a result, and until the government issues regulations mandating employers to have their employees work from home, any employer that requires their employees to work as usual is not in breach of any law or regulation.
“Any employee wishing to work from home may not, under the current applicable laws or regulations, request their employer to accept the COVID-19 outbreak as a justification [for] said employee’s absence.”
2. An employer is not allowed to lay off staff due to the coronavirus
Many businesses have been forced to close or take a hiatus at this present time; however, this does not justify the letting go of staff.
Explains Kortbawi: “Should any such employer terminate their employees as a result of a closure, they are likely to face claims for arbitrary dismissal as per Article 122 of UAE Federal Law No. 8 of 1980 (the “Labour Law”).
“The said employer will be required to settle – upon dismissal – the employee’s dues as outlined in the Labour Law and the employment contract, including but not limited to payment in lieu of notice. We have extensively addressed this in our Coronavirus Insight Centre.”
3. An employer cannot force an employee to take unpaid leave – or a salary cut
“We have noted that many employees are misinterpreting the governments’ advice to businesses to have their staff work from home, as an order from the government directed at employers,” he states. “However, an employer is not permitted to compel their employees to take unpaid leave or impose a salary reduction.” Kortbawi clarifies that employers are permitted to discuss salary cuts with employees – and an employee might want to accept the cut for the greater good of the company, for example – but they cannot be forced into the decision. If an employee agrees, then the reduction in salary must be recorded in writing as an amendment in their labour contract.
Note that an employer is not legally entitled to sack an employee if they refuse to go on unpaid leave or refuse a reduction in salary.
4. If an employee is dismissed for refusing unpaid leave or a salary reduction, they would be entitled to compensation
An employer is not legally entitled to fire an employee if they refuse to go on unpaid leave or refuse a reduction in salary, as this would be classified as arbitrary dismissal.
5. An employer has the right to have their employees take annual (paid) leave at this current time
“An employer may compel their employees to take annual leave during the period of closure mandated by the government on the basis of Article 76 of the Labour Law.
“In the absence of annual leave, the employees that do not show up to work when required to may be terminated for cause.”
6. If an employee has just returned from abroad, they are required by law to self-isolate for 14 days. An employer is breaking the law if they make that employee attend a workplace.
“In relation to employees returning from travel, they are required to self-quarantine, and not doing so is punishable by law,” confirms Kortbawi. “Any such employee may be entitled to sick leave, in accordance with the provisions of Article 83(2) of the Labour Law (and Article 35 of DIFC Law No. 2 of 2019).
“In circumstances where an employee is required by the law to self-quarantine upon return from travel, an employer cannot request the said employee to attend his/her place of work in breach of the said law.” Companies that breach employment laws, along with health and safety procedures, will be subject to fines, and potentially be liable under both civil and criminal law.
If an employee is in this situation, it is encouraged that they report it to authorities immediately.
7. Employers in the service industry – such as in food delivery services or supermarkets – have a legal obligation to protect its staff
Those who deal with a lot of customers on daily should be given sufficient protective equipment, such as masks and gloves. Any employer not keeping its employees safe and protected is breaking the law, as per Article 91 of Federal Law No. 8/1980 concerning the Regulation of Labour Relations (the “Labour Law”), which states: “The employer shall provide workers with adequate protection against hazards of occupational injuries and diseases that may occur during the work, as well as against fire and other hazards resulting from the use of machines and other work tools.
“The employer shall also adopt all other safety measures set by the MOHRE, and the worker shall use the safety gear and clothing supplied thereto for such purpose, [and] abide by all instructions of the employer aiming at the protection thereof from hazards, and refrain from carrying out any work that may hinder the execution of such instructions.
Kortbawi concludes: “The above can be interpreted in favour of the employee under the current circumstances, and can serve as a base to demand additional protection.”
(Reporting by Rachel McArthur; editing by Seban Scaria)
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