Even as the volume of commuters on public transport during peak hours has dropped by about 30 percent, the Government will be stepping up measures to get companies to implement telecommuting where possible, with penalties to be meted out to those that do not, the authorities said on Tuesday (March 31).
Speaking during a briefing by the government task force tasked with tackling the Covid-19 outbreak, Minister of Manpower Josephine Teo said that since her ministry issued an advisory on March 26 saying employers must ensure that employees telecommute if the work can be performed from home, more companies islandwide have carried out such arrangements.
However, only 40 percent of workers in companies located in the Central Business District Area are estimated to be telecommuting now, she noted.
“So there is a lot of scope for us to do more, especially private sector firms.”
To get more companies on board, it will soon be an offence for employers not to get their employees to work from home if the nature of work allows it, she added. Those that do not abide will be fined or even issued with stop-work orders.
Mrs Teo added that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) is working on a set of guidelines for companies to adhere to them. It will also amend existing regulations to enforce the guidelines and expand the enforcement team five-fold, Today Online reports.
“Within the same types of work settings, there are certain benchmarks we can point (companies) to and we want to make certain guidelines available to them, so that’s in the works.”
However, she said that each company’s circumstances will be taken into consideration before penalties are meted out.
“I should say that it’s not our intention to simply issue a stop-work order without considering the circumstances of the companies. We are looking for evidence that the company has made serious attempts to implement work-from-home or telecommuting arrangements.”
And even if companies have allowed some workers to telecommute, MOM will look into whether they can do more, she said.
“Keep in mind that we are in a concerted effort to try and reduce human-to-human contact outside of the families as much as possible. This means that even if the companies have implemented some telecommuting but actually they can do a lot more, we will require the companies to raise their game.”
But if a company is not taking the telecommuting guidelines seriously at all, MOM will have “no choice” but to act against them, she said.
“We will not hesitate to issue the stop-work order. As to how long? It will depend on the severity of the case — whether it is just a minor violation of the principle or if it’s really completely overboard.”
Mrs Teo added: “I want to emphasise this: Employers must allow your employees to work from home as far as reasonably practicable. This applies to all workplaces regardless of size and it should be for all times and all days, and not some times and some days.”
For companies where it is not possible for employees to telecommute, such as those in the manufacturing sector, Mrs Teo said that in addition to having safe-distancing measures between staff members and their customers, they must also aim to have the same measures within the workplace as well, such as staggering employees’ arrival and departure times.
“Don’t create a situation where everyone has to arrive at the same time, take the same lifts and create also the kind of situation where everyone has to leave at the same time or go to the bus stop at the same time.”
Meanwhile, the Public Service Division said that the public service will be able to have more than 95 percent of public agencies implemementing telecommuting for their employees by this week.
National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who is the co-chair of the task force, said that since more companies have made telecommuting arrangements in response to the pandemic, the volume of commuters taking public transport during peak hours has dropped by about 30 percent, but more could be done for this figure to drop further.
“That’s not bad but we need to go further, particularly if we want to do safe-distancing in our public transport system. So telecommuting has several benefits. It thins out people and the activity in workplaces, but if we work from home, we will also reduce crowdedness (on public transport) during peak hours,” he said.
“This is why we start with workplaces. Workplaces are a venue of transmission for many of the recent cases. That’s why getting more employers to get their staff to work from home is very essential.”
Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, also a co-chair of the task force, said that employers should understand that these measures will help them, too.
“Penalties and fines alone will not stop the transmission. The key is we want employers to be on our side. Help us support this telecommuting strategy,” Mr Gan said. “This way, we can keep employees safe and keep the companies alive.”