employers do for their workers in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown
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This article is written by Arush Mittal, a student currently pursuing B.A. LLB. (Hons) from Hidayatullah National Law University. This is an exhaustive article which deals with the current scenario of the COVID-19 lockdown and talks about what employers can do for their workers.

Introduction

With the outbreak of novel coronavirus, the world is facing a crisis of the century or at the least, a disease epidemic that the country has not seen over a decade. COVID-19 is a severe acute respiratory disease which is caused due to infection from the novel coronavirus that originated from the Wuhan city in China which has now turned into a global pandemic. This virus has spread across the globe and has started to cause economic repercussions which have severely affected Indian businesses. The COVID-19 virus has been affecting people even at their workplace. As India has shut down due to COVID-19, companies are opening up new ways of working. So far, India has reported thousands of cases and this number is expected to rise in the near future. Indian companies and business leaders have been trying to keep the business going on while ensuring the safety of their employees. A lot of companies across India have increased the precautions and done whatever they could do in their power to monitor such situations (coronavirus crisis). Due to the nationwide lockdown that began from March 25, all the offices and factories across the country were shut with a few exceptions. 

What can employers do for their workers in such situations?

There has been a lot of confusion about various issues arising out of the lockdown. There has been confusion about the payment of salaries where employees have been ordered to stay at home and whether the employees are entitled to be paid. There are various challenges that the employer has to face due to this situation. The main focus of the employers and the companies is to keep the employees engaged and make them feel good about themselves. According to Section 3(2) of the Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923, if an employee can prove that he has contracted a disease during the course of his employment, he is liable for compensation from the employer. The Force Majeure clause of the Indian Contracts Act, 1872 prevents the party from consequences over which it has no control. Companies are not able to perform their obligations to the employees due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Explanation of the situation

On March 24, at 8 pm, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi had announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown due to the coronavirus crisis. This announcement of an unpredictable 21-day lockdown gave just a couple of hours to the people to prepare for it. While addressing the nation, he assured that the essential items would be available but did not speak much about how to buy such food items and necessary goods. Due to this, there were crowds rushing towards various shops and traffic congestion was reported across the country. This lockdown led to the mass movement of labourers and workers from urban cities back to the rural villages from which they belong. The Prime Minister apologized for the hardships caused by the lockdown but said that these measures were necessary to control the COVID-19 virus. This lockdown would obviously affect the economic conditions of the country, but it was much needed. The businesses in India are also experiencing unprecedented issues in employee-related issues.

Employees should not be terminated from their jobs

The Modi Government has asked all the private and public companies to ensure that they do not cut salaries of their staff or resort to lay-offs of their employees amid the COVID-19 lockdown imposed to curtail the spread of this virus. Heeralal Samariya, the Secretary of the Labour Ministry sent out an advisory in the form of a letter which said that in the view of the catastrophic situation that India is suffering through due to which there may be some incidents where the employee is forced to leave without a salary. The government has advised the private and public enterprises not to terminate the services of such employees or reduce the wage of the workers. The government has also said that the termination of an employee by the employer or reduction in the salary (wages for workers) would not only weaken the employee’s financial condition but also affect the will power of such employee in fighting the COVID-19 virus.

Granting them work from home

When the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared coronavirus as a pandemic disease, companies like Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Hitachi, Apple, Amazon, Spotify, etc rolled out mandatory work-from-home policy. Work from home is not a new kind of concept for Indian companies but the statutes of Indian employment are silent about this concept. There are no guidelines that would regulate this concept but the employers have the flexibility to specify guidelines for their employees to do work from home. This lockdown does not necessarily mean that the employers of the company need to stop their work, they are free to implement work from home wherever possible. Work from home does not mean that the employee would be paid more for it than their usual income. This, however, has an exception.

The industrial establishments that require the physical presence of the employees to maintain its continuity would operate only after appropriate permissions from the local administrative authorities. A circular was issued by the Central Government which states that employment had been made non-operational due to this lockdown, the employees of such a place would be deemed to be on duty. The Ministry of Home Affairs issued a notification on March 29, 2020, to all the State Governments requiring employers of all the industries, shops and establishments to pay wages to all the workers without deduction during this period of lockdown.

Precaution at the Workplace

Due to the lockdown, employees were made to work from home and therefore they did not need to come to the office. But the lockdown exempts certain essential services, which means that some employees still have to go to work in factories and offices. For cases like these, employers are taking steps to increase the safety in those places where physical activities are involved. Top IT firm Tech Mahindra which is considered as an essential service and requires some of its staff members to work in the office, has been fumigating and sanitizing workspaces. They have also been providing sanitizers and stocking up on emergency medicines. The Chief People Officer of Tech Mahindra made a statement saying that their focus is to ensure that their associates and partner ecosystem stay healthy during this crisis.    

Incentives at the time of the lockdown

Leading companies in India are proactively ensuring employees that they would take care of the employees and help them with their finances during the COVID-19 lockdown (even if it continues or even gets extended). Companies are going all out to reassure the employees. The companies are paying salaries in advance to regular as well as contractual workers who work in that company and also honouring the joining date commitment for new joiners even if they cannot come on board. The HR heads of the top business groups have confirmed that work irregularities and projects which are stalled would not be a problem for the payment of the salary. An uninterrupted pay to the contract workers such as vendors, housekeeping staff, maintenance personnel, etc has been also assured by the companies. Suresh Tripathi, Vice President at Tata Steel has confirmed to the people that there would be no payment disruption and all the salaries would be paid on time. He has also said that even the contract workers in their company would not have a disruption in the payment even though the work has stopped.

Financial assistance to cover the additional costs of data and telephone calls, for example, maybe required from the employer for the employees who work from home during this lockdown situation. Employers may, as a general rule, not claim expenses as deductions that arise due to the work unless the majority of these expenses. It is very important to consider how much financial assistance is provided.

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Compensation to employees infected by the virus

The employers in India are obligated to pay compensation to the employees who are injured or who die due to certain accidents that arise during the time they are employed. Accordingly, if it can be demonstrated that the COVID-19 disease was contracted by the employee during the employment period and that it arose out of the employment then the employee who was affected by the virus has all the right to claim compensation from the employer. Sick leave of seven to twelve days is given to the infected employee when he asks for a sick leave depending on the vicinity of such a company. Karnataka has required employers to offer a longer period of sick leave (up to twenty-eight days) to personnel who’ve contracted COVID-19. If the illness continues beyond such a quantity of days, other leaves like informal leaves or earned leaves may be applied for the same. In the event of prolonged illness, personnel may be provided unpaid leaves for the required period. Further, establishments covered under the ESI Act, a longer period of sickness depart is possible. If an employee is required to manage self-quarantine on account of discharging his professional functions, such employees should be supplied with paid leaves for the same.

Authentic Information

Due to the flooding of information on social media regarding the coronavirus (some of which is highly dubious), employers of the companies are focused on giving its employees reliable and authentic information. The employers are communicating with people to not panic and maintain safety. Communication from employers is very valuable. A study that was done recently has shown that employees trust the information (63%)  that is given by the companies more than any government website or other sources. Companies are using various means of communication such as emails, webcasts, etc to guide the employees about the information related to how to stay safe if the employees show some symptoms of the virus. A government website is working towards providing information regarding the COVID-19 virus.

Infrastructure for Remote Workforce

Since a lot of companies have started with work from home, many employees do not have such infrastructure which would enable them to do work from home. For instance, many employees do not have laptops or, in some parts of India, have poor connectivity to the internet, therefore, they can not use high-quality data. Some companies had planned for this from before and provided laptops to all the employees and also provided Wi-Fi and various such types of equipment so that the employees could start with their work from home without facing any difficulties. IDBI Federal Life and Oberoi had exchanged laptops from employees who did not need it much with those employees who could not afford it and needed it critically. This decision had provided a lot of help to the employees.

Conclusion

The lockdown of our nation which was initially made for 21 days was made under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, on the directions of the National Disaster Management Authority. To stay operational during the lockdown, the establishment of the employer needs to be one that provides essential services. Employees who are working in these establishments must be provided with some kind of a pass which allows them to travel around for their work as even though there is a lockdown. The employers are trying their level best to provide help to their employees and workers.

The step of giving incentives at the time of lockdown has been great at it would indulge the employees more towards working from home.  Compensation to the infected employees and authentic information to all the employees is an excellent measure taken by the employers. The policy measures by the employers should not be neglected and be strictly adhered to, so as to minimize the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus which is prevailing currently.


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