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Singapore was the third country to report cases of COVID-19 and made headlines when WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised its efforts to stop transmission. A Harvard study estimated that Singapore detects almost three times more cases than the global average due to its strong contract tracing. Singapore is also a country with a robust foreign workforce, with a total of 1,399,600 foreign workers who adhere to strict work permit rules. With COVID-19, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is taking measures that affect foreign workers and their employers.
Singapore instated an order requiring employees who returned from working overseas in Mainland China in the last month to take a leave of absence (LOA) of 14 days. Under the LOA order, companies with existing flexible work and leave arrangements were instructed to ask employees to use their annual leave. According to the MOM’s COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions site, employees on LOA may leave their residences only for necessary daily activities or to attend to important personal matters.
The LOA differs from a Quarantine order, which applies only to close contacts of confirmed COVID-19 cases, and from a Stay Home Notice, which applies to residents and long-term pass holders returning from high-risk areas in general. However, the LOA holds an additional consequence for those who flout the LOA rules. The MOM emphasized its power to revoke work permits if LOA rules are broken.
Expats and foreign workers bear immense responsibility to follow these rules, or risk revocation of their work passes. MOM has been conducting “regular checks through physical inspections, telephone and video calls as part of ongoing efforts to ensure that work pass holders on mandatory LOA abide by the requirements.” In February, the MOM took action against 10 work pass holders and suspended the work pass privileges of nine employers for breaching the LOA rules.
However, as of 1 April, work permit holders of any nationality are now able to take jobs in other sectors as long as their employers agree to the switch. This expanded scheme allows companies facing a manpower shortage to tap into an expanded pool of work permit holders in Singapore. According to the Straits Times, this move saves on search and recruitment costs, while “firms with excess manpower can transfer these workers to other companies more quickly, allowing work permit holders to continue working in Singapore and saving on repatriation costs.”
At the same time, there are incentives for compliance with the LOA requirements as outlined under the Leave of Absence Support Programme (LOASP). Eligible employers can apply for $100 USD daily per affected worker for the required duration of paid LOA granted to the employee in addition to a levy waiver for affected foreign workers for the LOA period. Freelancers who travelled to mainland China on or before 31 January and placed themselves on LOA upon their return to Singapore can also apply for the daily $100. However, employers and the self-employed are asked not to apply for this program if telecommuting arrangements are available.
In a time of heightened action toward reducing the presence of COVID-19, foreign workers in Singapore are encouraged to comply with strict rules. Doing so ensures employee safety, the retention of work permits and the ability to work in different sectors. The additional incentives for companies complete a well-rounded plan of action to ensure that businesses and their employees are made safe and well in a critical moment.
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