As from 4 May, Belgium will gradually start the long haul out of lockdown. And when we say “gradually”, that may still be an understatement: in a PowerPoint presentation longer than the Harry Potter series and containing much less magic, the country’s Prime Minister has explained to the media each of the seemingly endless phases to a return to whatever is our new normality.
What does it mean for your business in Belgium?
From Monday next week, for non-critical activities and non-essential services, the main rules are as these:
- Homeworking is now recommended (as opposed to mandatory), provided that the employee’s position allows it.
- Where homeworking is not applied, employers should take the necessary measures to ensure maximal observance of the social distancing rules (in particular the 1.5 meter rule).
- As regards these measures, reference is made to the Generic Guide drawn up last week by the social partners of the High Council for Prevention and Protection at Work, the Policy Unit of the Minister for Employment and experts from the Ministry of Employment. This is looked at in more detail below.
For critical or essential businesses, there are no changes: homeworking is still recommended were possible, but the focus was and remains on maintaining services while ensuring a safe working environment.
Generic Guide with a view to assisting businesses in the gradual re-introduction of economic activities
The title may not be captivating and it does not read like a John le Carré, but the Guide (https://werk.belgie.be/sites/default/files/content/news/Generiekegids.pdf) aims to give employers practical guidelines on how to organize the return to the workplace.
The Guide advises paying special attention to employees in a vulnerable position (because of their own health situation or that of their family members) and to employees who have continued to come to the workplace, even in these difficult circumstances. It may be summarised as follows:
- Personal hygiene and social distancing are still key:
- Wash those hands! Employers should ensure the necessary materials are available (hand soap, paper towels, hand gels, disposable tissues …) as well as the necessary reminders to employees of this obligation.
- Employers should organise the work in such a way that the 1.5 meter distance rule may be observed as much as possible.
- Organisational measures should be taken to maximise social distancing, such as:
- Making sure that employees arrive and leave at different times (e.g. by reorganising the start and end time of shifts), that lunch breaks are spread, etc.
- Use of lifts should be avoided.
- Time registration tools involving physical touch may be a contamination risk.
- If doors should not be closed for safety reasons (especially fire doors), keep them open to avoid touching.
- Where the 1.5 meter distance is threatened, collective protection measures (protective shields, partitions, markings on the floor) take priority over the provision of personal protection measures (gloves, masks, protective clothing).
- As regards face masks, the Guide considers them to be a last resort, to be used only when social distancing cannot be observed and organisational measures and collective protection measures do not offer sufficient protection.
- Special attention should be given to the cleaning of the building and to ventilation.
Talk it over
Communication is key in the Guide: envisaged measures should be discussed with the employee representatives, or if none, directly with your employees. It is also recommended that employers keep employees regularly updated through the different phases to come. But communication is also essential with contractors, suppliers and other third parties who visit your offices or come to work there temporarily. They should be informed of the measures being taken before they set foot in your offices.
As the title gives away, the Generic Guide applies to all industries commonly. Specific guides may be issued per sector. Such guides have already been published for the metals sector and the electrical goods industry, for example.
And what about those children we hear screaming in the background on every conference call?
Lastly, please also note that shops will only be allowed to re-open as from 11 May and schools will start up again as from 18 May, so relief is at hand. Schools will reopen gradually: the pivotal grades will start up first; other children may have to stay home longer. The fact that your employee may still have children at home who cannot go to school will impact their ability to come back to work in the offices. The government had announced the intention to create a special care leave provision for employees in this situation, but there have been no further developments in this respect.
No doubt lost somewhere in that 167 page PowerPoint presentation … .