As we witness the evolution of the regulatory landscape across the MENA region, it was timely for us to investigate and lift the lid, on what is keeping the region’s legal decision-makers awake at night.
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As countries try to deal with the growing COVID-19 crisis, here are some issues that MENA based employers, particularly in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Egypt, should be aware of under their respective labour and employment legislative regimes in dealing with the impact of the outbreak.
Each of the countries has legislation in place which requires employers to ensure that workplaces are safe from hazards and that precautionary measures are taken to ensure that that employees are protected. Requiring employees to undertake business travel to high risk countries may be construed as not providing employees with a safe working environment.
In the UAE, for most employers, in the event that an employee contracts the virus, it is unlikely that it would be deemed to be an occupational disease under the provisions of the labour law. However, this would not apply to employers in the medical field and potentially to organizations that require dealings with medical facilities (e.g. waste disposal from a medical facility or coffee shops/cafes operated by third parties at hospitals, etc.).
Where there is a necessity to require employees to work from home or other flexible arrangement, there are no laws or guidelines in any of the jurisdictions that govern such arrangements.
The relevant laws do however provide that the employer must provide the tools to enable an employee to undertake their work, and therefore in the event that an employee does have not a PC /laptop or have access to the internet at home, then the employer will have to ensure that they have such access if they require employees to work from home.
The use of video conferencing or other tools to have online meetings is seeing increased use however note that in some of the countries, VOIP services are banned/blocked and therefore appropriate arrangements should be made to ensure that all employees working from home have access to an approved service to avoid business disruption. For UAE employers, please see further article in this alert.
In all the jurisdictions an employer has the right to determine the time and periods of annual leave and therefore, it can impose a period of forced annual leave on its employees in the event required.
By way of a reminder the minimum annual leave entitlements are:
A number of employers are imposing policies which state that where an employee travels to a country that is deemed by the W.H.O. to be at high risk, then on return the employee must take at least an additional 14 days paid leave following such travel before returning to work.
In the UAE, when the annual leave entitlement is exhausted and the employee cannot return to work due to the crisis (e.g. they cannot get back into the country due to travel restrictions) employers may place them on unpaid leave (if they cannot work remotely).
In the event that an employee contracts the virus, and on the basis that it is not deemed to be an occupational disease, sick leave provisions will apply to the infirmed period of the employee. The sick leave provisions in each of the jurisdictions vary substantially:
(15 days’ full pay; 30 days half pay; 45 days unpaid)
(30 days’ full pay; 60 days 75% pay; 30 days unpaid)
(2 weeks’ full pay; 4 weeks half pay; 6 weeks unpaid)
(15 days’ full pay; 20 days half pay; 20 days unpaid)
(90 days 75% pay increasing to 85% pay for the next 90 days)
Whilst these are the minimum requirements under each of the jurisdictions, an employer is within its rights to provide a more generous entitlement should it wish.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, specifically Dubai and Abu Dhabi, have a mandatory medical insurance obligation on employers to provide coverage for their employees. In the other emirates in the UAE where an employer does not provide medical insurance, employees will have a government health card which will allow them to avail the services of government medical facilities.
In Bahrain while a health insurance law has been passed to impose an obligation on employers to provide medical insurance to their employees, it has not yet been fully implemented. However, most employers already provide medical insurance for their staff but where this is not available then employees will usually have a personal medical insurance policy or access subsidised treatment at government clinics.
In Egypt, an employer is obliged to provide treatment and medication for its employees free of charge at an assigned clinic, as well as hospital treatment.
Senior Associate, Employment & Incentives – Egypt