Coronavirus: Labour law FAQ for UAE employers

May 6, 2020

Get answers to the most commonly asked UAE Labour Law related questions and understand how to support your business through a global health emergency.

The coronavirus (or COVID-19) was first reported in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. With person-to-person transmission, reported cases have since continued to grow exponentially. As governments and public health authorities adjust their policies to respond to the challenge, companies need guidance on how best to address the situation with regards to their employees.

Committed to supporting employers in the region, the CIPD worked with leading law firm Clyde & Co to provide you with answers to the most commonly asked UAE Labour Law related questions.

What happens if someone is affected?  Sick pay or full pay?

If an employee contracts Coronavirus (now officially termed COVID-19 by the World Health Authority), this can be treated in the same way as any other sickness absence in terms of payment. For completeness, the UAE Labour Law provides that an employee is entitled to 90 calendar days of sick leave in any 12-month period. The first 15 days are payable at full pay, the next 30 at half pay and the remaining 45 days are unpaid.

To encourage employees to notify the company where they have coronavirus symptoms, and not to return to work before they are no longer contagious, the employer could consider enhancing the sick leave provisions for confirmed coronavirus cases (for example, employees could retain full pay throughout their period of sickness rather than dropping to half or no pay).

What happens around self-isolation when someone is not sick?  Sick pay or full pay?

The UAE Labour Law does not specifically address this situation. Any employer’s policies and procedures should be reviewed for any relevant provisions (relating to emergency leave or unpaid leave, for example).

If an employee is not sick, the default situation is that no sick pay is payable. There is no legal obligation to pay an employee for not attending work which is not covered under any current contractual provision so in that situation, there would be no entitlement to pay unless the contract provides otherwise.

From a practical perspective, employers will not of course want to risk employees attending the workplace in circumstances where there is a risk that they have come into contact with someone with the Coronavirus or visited a high-risk area, for example.

Employers may therefore choose to class the absence as sickness and apply normal sick pay rules. This being said, we encourage employers to listen to employee’s concerns and consider flexible working arrangements. This could, for example, include permitting the employee to work from home for a period of time (if their role allows), agreeing that the employee will take a period of paid annual leave or permitting the employee to take a period of unpaid leave. The relevant arrangement should be documented in writing and signed by the employer and the employee.

My employer has asked me to stay at home – will I be paid?

There is no legal right to unilaterally place an employee on unpaid leave and doing so could give rise to a breach of contract claim against the company. A period of unpaid leave could however be agreed with the employee (in which case, such agreement should be recorded in writing).

If your employer is asking you to stay home, they have taken that decision and you should still be paid. Many office workers will be able to work from home though, so it becomes a usual working day.

Employers are legally entitled to require their employees to take a period of annual leave (which would need to be paid in the usual way).

I’m a parent and my child’s school has been closed. Can I ask for time off and will it be paid?

There is no statutory right to take time off in these circumstances (there is no statutory right to emergency leave, for example). An employer’s internal policies and procedures should be reviewed to check whether they grant any right to time off in these circumstances (i.e. for emergency or family reasons).

Employees can request paid annual leave (assuming they have sufficient leave balance). Alternatively, employees can seek to agree with their employer that they will either work from home (in which case they should be paid as usual) or take a period of unpaid leave. Such arrangements should be documented in writing.

Can employers require that employees take their annual leave?

In the UAE, employees could be required to take paid annual leave (this is permitted under the Labour Law) provided, of course, that they have sufficient leave balance available.

It could also be agreed with the employee that the employee can work from home or take a period of unpaid leave during this period. Such an arrangement should be documented in writing and signed by the employer and the employee.

Can employers prohibit employees from going to specific countries on their personal leave?

What your employees do outside of working hours is largely out of your control. You can encourage employees to consider whether, from their own health perspective, travel to those areas is the best thing to do and that, if they do decide to travel, they should take all necessary health precautions. You could also require employees to notify you of their travel plans so that appropriate precautionary measures can be taken.

Employers should also discuss the likelihood of post-visit isolation and the impact of that on the individual and the wider working team.

I’m back from an affected area. I feel fine but I’m stuck at home on government advice, will I be paid?

If you can work from home, and your employer can help you to do that by providing relevant equipment, then you can carry on working and being paid as normal.

However – if you work in a factory or warehouse where you can only do your job on the site then the employer is under no obligation to pay you. This will affect individuals more than businesses. We encourage employers to be generous and flexible to ensure that potentially affected employees stay home.

You could also request that the period be classed as annual leave, in which case you would be entitled to pay in the usual way.

I travelled for work and I am now stuck because of travel restrictions, which makes going to the office impossible. Should I be paid?

If an employee in these circumstances can work remotely then this period would be paid. Given that the employee travelled for work, the employer would be encouraged to be generous and flexible.

What if people might be ill but still go into work as they are worried about not being paid?

We know this is already the case for many people with a normal cold, but the Coronavirus is different, and businesses and employees must take it seriously. That means employees need to put their health and that of the rest of the workforce ahead of their individual pay-check, but businesses also need to play their part. If someone is sick, or has potentially been exposed in some way, they should consider awarding the time as paid sick leave (whether statutory or enhanced) to ensure that person has time to recover and the rest of the workforce are protected. Employers have a care of duty to the whole workforce and should be generous to encourage people to stay home– best to pay one individual to take time off then having to cope with the whole workforce being affected. Employees should (where possible) be given comfort that declaring that they suspect they have or may have come into contact with someone who has, the Coronavirus will not have any adverse impact on their work or pay.

Should an employee be suspected or confirmed to have contracted COVID-19, do employers have a responsibility to report this information?

Any individual testing positive for Covid 19 would likely be put into quarantine and their condition would be reported to the health authorities. It is also possible that the department for preventive medicine would then trace who the individual had come into close contact with and ask them to be tested.

Employers should consider what actions they will take in the event an employee tests positive. Prompt action will be critical and, with this in mind, we strongly encourage all employers to consider an emergency response procedure so that management have a clear action plan.

Critical aspects of the emergency response procedure will include promptly ascertaining who the employee may have come into contact with and, potentially, requiring such employees to remain away from the workplace (on leave or working from home) until it is confirmed that they have not contracted the virus.

Prompt communications, internally and potentially externally, may also be required and must be sensitively drafted with due regard to the balance between ensuring individuals are notified if they may have been exposed to the virus, while at the same time protecting the privacy and data of the employee involved and with due regard to local data protection legislation and/or laws protecting an individual’s privacy. The identity of the employee should in so far as possible not be disclosed.

My employee alleges that they contracted the coronavirus while at work. Will this result in a compensable compensation claim?

The UAE Labour Law sets out a list of occupational injuries and diseases which attract compensation if contracted at work, at schedule 1 and 2 of the Labour Law. Covid-19 is of course not listed. Whether or not an employee could claim compensation for contracting Covid-19 at work will depend on the circumstances and whether the employee can conclusively establish the link between work and contacting the virus.

Most organisations have halted non-critical travel and instructed their staff to avoid attending meetings and events. But can an employer require that its employees attend events and keep travelling?

Employers should be taking the lead here and looking carefully at international travel and deciding on what is appropriate and what potentially poses a risk, cancelling all but essential travel, especially to high risk areas. Could meetings be done via videoconferencing for instance? If an individual is concerned, they should speak to their line manager or HR department to discuss options.

From a legal standpoint, employers are under a general duty to safeguard employees’ health and safety and to ensure they are providing a safe working environment. Therefore, given the widespread declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic and the authorities rulings to close nurseries, schools, cancel all public events, training programs in public places, and the travel restrictions being imposed, employers should have clear and justifiable reasons (such as compelling business reasons) for instructing an employee to travel or attend events.

Note: References to the “Labour Law” are to UAE Federal Law No. 8 of 1980, as amended.