The coronavirus and global mobility considerations

2 March 2020
The coronavirus originating in Wuhan China is affecting the global economy in many ways, and the situation is constantly changing.

The outbreak is disrupting supply chains, interrupting cross-border travel, and even causing a popular international rugby tournament to be "plunged into chaos."

Employers and their expat workers in particular must be mindful of the coronavirus — known as COVID-19 — and the ways in which state and local governments are responding. Rules related to immigration, sheltering in place and more are changing rapidly in the face of the outbreak. The situation is another reminder that while we may live in a global economy, each country has its own laws and regulations that must be followed.

Singapore's response: A case study in the importance of expat compliance with local rules

Singapore is one of the world’s most globally connected countries, with a high percentage of foreign workers, significant inward and outward foreign direct investment, and a dependence on exports. One recent BBC article observes that the island nation is “dependent on the rest of the world for its economy, for its food, for its lifeline.” As a result, it “has no choice but to be extra vigilant and transparent in its fight against” COVID-19.

Singapore’s fight against the coronavirus has had significant consequences for the country’s foreign workers and employers. For example, Singapore recently implemented rules related to what it calls Leave of Absence (LOA), Stay-Home Notice (SHN) and Quarantine Orders (QOs).

Singapore-based expat workers and their employers should pay attention to LOA restrictions in particular. Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM) website cautions that “employees on LOA may leave their residences for daily necessities or to attend important matters, but they must minimise time spent in public spaces and contact with others.” It adds that those employees “with recent travel history to mainland China (outside Hubei) … will be placed on LOA.”

Significantly for expat workers, the MOM emphasizes its power to revoke work privileges if LOA rules are flouted. Workers and businesses both bear a compliance burden in this area. The website explains: “Employers and employees have a joint duty to ensure that employees behave responsibly during the LOA period. MOM will not hesitate to revoke the work passes and withdraw work pass privileges against errant employers or employees.”

The MOM is carrying out its threats to punish non-compliance with LOA rules. The ministry announced last week that it had revoked the work passes of six people, permanently banning three of them from working in the country and revoking the work passes of the three others.

In five of the cases, the MOM also suspended the work-pass privileges of the employers involved. (Three of those employers have a two-year ban; the other terms are unspecified.) It’s worth emphasizing that the MOM announcement calls out a number of employers by name. Here’s an example: “The first case involved a worker who approached MOM to lodge a complaint against his employer, Element Logistics Pte Ltd, a freight forwarding firm, after his company’s business development manager instructed him to work.” This practice of “naming and shaming” can place a reputational burden on Singapore employers that extends beyond the significant burden of suspending work-pass privileges. The example should also be a reminder to employers that the MOM encourages LOA whistle-blowers and that not all employees will necessarily show loyalty to their employers.

Singapore’s MOM is not the only ministry involved in enforcing COVID-19-related rules. Last week, the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) announced that it had revoked the Singapore Permanent Resident (SPR) status of a 45-year-old male and banned him from re-entering the country.

The ICA took the severe measures because the man had broken rules related to the Stay-Home Notice. The announcement reminds us that Singapore’s SHN is served on certain individuals who “with recent travel history to mainland China (outside of Hubei) in the last 14 days” and that these individuals “are required to remain in their place of residence at all times for a 14-day period.”

Employers and expats operating in Singapore should understand that local authorities are taking a hard line on enforcement. The ICA announcement notes that “the Government will continue to conduct regular random checks through house visits and phone calls to ensure compliance with the SHN.”

Italy and the U.S.: Evolving immigration rules

As the above enforcement examples suggest, Singapore has been able to rapidly implement border control measures and otherwise manage the COVID-19 crisis so far in part because it’s a very small country with an effective centralised government and robust modern infrastructure.

Other countries face their own unique COVID-19-related challenges and operate under different sets of laws and assumptions. Italy, for example, has at the time of this writing the third-highest rate of recorded cases of the coronavirus in the world and the highest in Europe. Despite these numbers, Italy and its European neighbours have decided not to implement border controls in response to the outbreak. To do so would be a politically and ideologically difficult decision in the European Union, where free movement of persons is a fundamental right guaranteed by the EU to its citizens.” Such a decision would also come on the heels of Brexit, which was precipitated in large part by the UK’s desire to control its own borders.

The New York Times explains that as COVID-19 cases in Europe increase, “calls for closing borders have grown louder” and “privately European officials warned that this [i.e., the current state of EU open borders] could change quickly.” The EU, or Schengen Area, does allow for the temporary reintroduction of border control "in the event that a serious threat to public policy or internal security has been established.” It is of course conceivable that these border controls will be reintroduced in an effort to stem COVID-19.

In the meantime, Italian authorities have implemented controls in the north of Italy, including imposing fines on anyone caught entering or leaving outbreak areas.” Needless to say, any expat and employer in this region must be aware that these kinds of regional controls have the ability to disrupt the normal practices of travel and work (not to mention personal life). Those foreign workers in northern Italy on work permits or visas — and those workers on short-term assignments that may suddenly turn into long-term assignments due to unexpected local shelter-in-place rules — should also be aware that visa and work permit rules do not disappear during emergencies. The COVID-19 epidemic is in some ways unprecedented, and the ways in which local governments relax (if at all) local visa and work-permit requirements remains to be seen. In all cases, however, expats and their employers should be vigilant about understanding applicable visa and work-permit regulations, and keep abreast of any related changes that may arise due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

It’s also worth stressing that expats and their employers must comply not only with host-country rules governing work and travel, they must also comply with home-country rules. Last Wednesday, for example, President Donald Trump indicated that the U.S. may restrict travel to and from Italy (and South Korea), saying: “At the right time we may do it, right now it's not the right time.” Obviously, any restrictions on travel from Italy could prevent U.S. expats on assignment from re-entering the country, particularly if they’re not U.S. citizens.

On February 8, President Trump did impose temporary restrictions on foreign nationals travelling from China “during the 14-day period preceding their entry or attempted entry into the United States.” A Public Radio International story illuminates how these COVID-19-related travel restrictions can significantly affect expat workers and their employers.

PRI reports that a China-born couple and their U.S. citizen children flew from the U.S. to China to renew their U.S. work visas at the U.S. embassy in Beijing. Soon after arriving, the coronavirus outbreak became public, which in turn led to Chinese authorities restricting the movement of its citizens and to U.S. authorities implementing the travel ban. As a result, the family is stranded in China, away from the father’s newly-accepted position in Seattle as an engineer for Amazon. PRI notes that “their predicament represents a collision of U.S. immigration policy and a virus that has captured the world’s attention.”

The PRI story does not mention if the family in question brought or has access to a laptop for the purposes of working remotely. Whatever the case, if the expat wants to perform work from China on behalf of his new U.S.-based employer (Amazon), he will have to obey China’s rules governing foreign workers operating in the country.

The COVID-19 outbreak has, then, generated considerable uncertainties for workers based abroad and their employers. Expats and employers alike must be mindful not only of the health concerns involved, but of evolving home- and host-country requirements related to sheltering in place, travel, and visas and work permits. Employers that send workers across borders should strongly consider engaging a third-party international expansion services provider that tracks regulatory changes in countries around the world and provides advice to lower global mobility risks.