COVID-19 in India (Part 1): Workplace concerns for (foreign) companies

The full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on businesses is not clear at the moment but it is likely to spread in the coming days. If you own a business for which you employ people in India, you may want to consider the following to guide you through a period of COVID-19 outbreak.

The COVID-19 outbreak has taken the world by storm. At the same time, business owners have something else to deal with, the employment law issues with regard to travel, health and safety concerns, sickness and absence. In this article, we try to provide you with an outline of the key issues you can consider as an employer in India.

Employer’s duties

Like any other country, employers have to ensure employees’ safety and make sure the work environment is healthy by doing ‘everything reasonably possible’ and ensure deterrence. In order to do so, employers are advised to consider the following:

1. Employers have to comply with the official recommendations by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and the World Health Organization, to make sure the employees are informed unequivocally about important measures, which are not restricted to hygiene guidelines (only).

2. In this uncertain time of a pandemic-like situation, which is already fuelling extreme levels of anxiety, it is of utmost importance to keep the communication lines open. The employees need to be educated with up-to-date factual and accurate information (from reliable resources), without causing panic.

3. If the risk becomes real, employees can be provided with hand sanitisers, face masks or even enabled to work from home (see below).

Can my employees take leave? 

Under the Indian employment law, employers are not required to grant leave for COVID-19, other than what is statutorily mandated or contractually agreed upon between parties. However, considering the pandemic nature of the virus and unanticipated increase in numbers, it is recommended the employers do consider paid leave for employees that are affected by the virus.

Can I fire an employee affected by COVID-19? 

To avoid any legal claims at a later stage, employers are advised not to terminate employment contracts if the employee is infected or is suspected to be infected by COVID-19. However, an employee who is suffering from a communicable disease like COVID-19 has to be prevented from entering the workplace – for the duration of the contagion - for protection of other employees. 

Many companies have already asked their employees to work from home to contain the spread of Covid-19 contagion. For many companies, work from home will be a challenge due to poor technology and/or infrastructure for remote working. However, this is also an opportunity for companies to invest in digital business and long-term resilience.

To make sure the productivity is not compromised, employers can audit IT hard- and software, and fill the gaps to make sure the IT systems are robust and working during remote access. 

From a legal point of view, companies should determine if there are any data-security issues to be considered, before allowing employees to work from home.

Privacy and discrimination

Health information is ‘private data’ that has to be treated confidentially. Also, company policies should apply equally to all employees, irrespective of their ethnicity, nationality, gender etc. Also, if an employee is perceived to have contracted COVID-19, he/she cannot be discriminated against.

Travel advisory  

The Indian government has issued an advisory to travellers from India, to refrain from travelling to countries that are badly hit, such as China, Iran, South Korea and Italy. All non-essential travel has to be avoided to other COVID-19 affected countries as well. To further limit the virus-spread, the government has started universal screening for people coming into India as well as testing people coming in through open borders. Also, people cannot fly in from China, Japan, South Korea, Iran and Italy as all the visas for these countries have been suspended for the time being. 

Essentially, employers are advised to plan ahead and act proportionately, equitably and consistently. Not doing so will not only attract legal claims, it will also an adverse impact on employee confidence and do an irreversible damage to employee relations.

If you can any legal query about COVID-19 in India, please get in touch with Miss Legal India.



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