The impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) on our health system and fragile economy is an unfolding story that continues to cause uncertainties.

One of the biggest visible impacts of COVID-19 has been on businesses, organisations, and government’s nature of their workplaces and in managing the workforce.

As Solomon Islands continues to register active cases of the virus due to the repatriation flights Government has approved recently, the uncertainties of a lockdown if there is community transmission continues to startle employers.

Employers need some sort of guidance in complying with restriction if there’s a lockdown while striving to keep operations going and taking care of the workforce’s welfare.

The immediate concern for businesses and organisations is what to do with their workforce once a lengthy lockdown is imposed, and judging from the unpredictability and spread of COVID-19 worldwide, local HR Practitioners insists that as part of the country’s preparedness efforts measures needs to be in place now, rather than later.

Realising this need, in October 2020, the Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SICCI) collaborated with the local Human Resource (HR) Practitioners Network in facilitating a workshop with a focus on developing an Employer Guide on managing the workplace during COVID-19.

This will be a basic guide suitable for businesses and organisations in Solomon Islands.
It is understood that most businesses have their own standard operation and business continuity plans, this guideline is to ensure preparedness to dealing with employees.

“This was acknowledged as a platform for collaboration between government departments, private sector and HR practitioners to share experiences and challenges affecting their workplaces and to find a local solution to managing workforce during and after this pandemic,” Chair of the HR Practitioners Network, Ms Nancy Palmer, said.

The workshop attracted a lot of interest from SICCI members as well as senior HR Practitioners from some of the biggest companies in Solomon Islands including the country’s leading State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs).

Ms Palmer said this was the first avenue for businesses and organisations to come together to discuss issues affecting them during this pandemic.

“From the discussions it was evident that HR practitioners need clear government policies or guidelines on key labour and HR related issues such as repatriation, allowances and many more,” she said.

HR Practitioners also agreed that front-liners should also be more inclusive of other essential groups including managers and workers who are required to be on site or at their work station during a lockdown.

“A contingency plan is needed which includes a nation-wide matrix that communicates the level of risk the country is on which helps in the management of people and resources,” Ms Palmer said.

“There is a need for HR advisory services, mentoring and counselling services to address associated mental health issue,” she added.

Soltuna Limited based in Noro Western Province provides employment for 2000 Solomon Islanders from all provinces around the country, and for their Human Resources Manager, Ms Bela Simiha, the dilemma is how to renumerate workers when operation shuts down due to a lockdown.

“The Government through its Labour Division has to come out and make some kind of statement as to what companies can legally do and what we cannot do,” she said.

For most companies, organisations or even the public service, employees are only entitled to three to four weeks annual leave.

“In the case where community transmission of COVID-19 has occurred and we go into lockdown of more than four weeks, how are we going to pay the employees?” Ms Simiha asked, during an interview with SICCI Media.

“Apart from the annual leave there is sick leave but the question remains if its legal to do this while workers cannot go to work due to a lockdown.

“That is why we need to have some guidelines and directives from Government because it is also unacceptable to tell workers to go on leave without pay,” she said.

Every year Soltuna undertakes an expensive exercise in meeting all costs of sending their employees to their respective home provinces for the festive season. But that too is in doubt for this year.

“The main concern for our employees is whether they will still get paid once there is a total shut down in an event of a lockdown,” Ms Simiha said.

“If we do have a lengthy lockdown and they (employees) have to remain in Noro for the festive season then who is going to be responsible for them once their money runs out.

“We acknowledge Government’s assurance of containing the virus in the quarantine stations, however, what has been highlighted are possible scenarios and that is why Soltuna along with other companies need some guidelines to work with,” she added.

For Soltuna being situated close to the western border poses another risk.

Government has declared the Western border with Papua New Guinea as an Emergency Zone under the current State of Public Emergency due to the risk of importing the virus from Bougainville, which shares the western border with Solomon Islands. Ms Simiha said they have put in place measures as part of their preparedness plan.

“We have trained our workforce on preventive measures and on healthy living while also checking their temperatures before they come in for work,” she said.

South Pacific Oil (SPO) Limited too is facing uncertainties in terms of their workforce as there is no HR policy in place at the moment to cater for COVID-19 related leaves.

Human Resource Manager, Ms Muriel Dakamae said the question they are asking is what to fall back on once employees have exhausted both their sick leave and their annual leave.

“And then absenteeism comes in which is something that affects man power and will put pressure over time which will be another cost. Those are the kinds of things that is a challenge for SPO as an organization.

“A lockdown is also an issue as currently we assume that there is no community transmission. We hope the virus is contained but if worse comes to worse, then SPO also supports essential services and businesses, as such, we will be needing our responsible officer on site,” Ms Dakamae said.

During a Labour Advisory Board meeting on 26th March 2020 prior to the 36-hours simulated lockdown in April, the Commissioner of Labour advised that workers and employers agree on what works for them.

There is agreement that the types of leave that can be accessed should start with annual leave, and then any other leave accumulated and as stated in contracts. With sick leave, we see that other jurisdictions are advising that sick leave should only be used where worker is not fit for work due to illness or injury affecting them.

There has not been any further advise since in regards to a lengthier lockdown.

Meanwhile, the HR Practitioners Network are expected to finalise the Employers Guide in the coming weeks collated from the experiences and challenges shared by some of the country’s leading HR practitioners during that workshop in October.