” Please, a definition: a hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action.”
– Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, 1952
In harsh climates when food is scarce, bears and some other animals sleep through winter because they use up more energy maintaining their body temperature and in foraging for food than they would receive from eating the food they are able to find. This is also true of businesses now during this pandemic and forced lockdown.
Professionals such as accountants and lawyers who are normally very circumspect, compliant and coy about selling themselves in public, have recently very quickly jumped into the business guru bandwagon by dispensing webinar wisdoms and live-streamed tips to clients and strangers they have never met on how to survive through this unpredictable period that each day is looking leaner and tougher.
Companies are advised to tighten their belts at a time when they are also told that they have a legal and moral duty to pay full salaries to all their staff who are not working and staying at home.
Business owners are exhorted to stay positive and be willing to adapt and innovate. But they must if possible keep everything the way it was so that the situation can and will return smoothly and quickly back to before. As employers they are not allowed to change any job position, working hours and pay. To get staff to accept any of these changes a business owner must first convince them (via Zoom of course) that his plan is good for everyone in the long run and by appealing to their sense of desperation, gratitude or pity.
Like the latest memes such as stay at home to save lives, be responsible by not working or being alone in this together, the advice about the law we have been hearing sums up the paradoxes and dilemmas of Covid-19.
This pandemic is different from all past crises we know, not just because it affects and can harm more people and spread to more places but also because the response it brings out in people is so contradictory and confusing.
We are now dealing with the ‘unknown unknowns’, to use a term coined by ex-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld when he was asked about the alleged weapons of mass destruction during the war on Iraq in 2002.
With so much that we don’t know and not knowing even more of what we don’t know, isn’t it better for us to postpone planning or committing too much until we figure things out? Shouldn’t a business be like a bear in the depth of a long dark winter adapt for survival by going into hibernation to conserve energy and resources till when the season is kinder and food becomes more plentiful and easier to find?
Malaysian labour laws only give companies the choice to either continue with terms they have agreed with their staff or lay them off if they cannot afford to keep them. Options such as pay reduction, shorter working hours or unpaid leave are core changes to the terms of employment. To carry out any such cost cutting, companies must first get their employees to agree. A boss, under labour law, has no right to force his workers to take a pay cut or insist that they take unpaid leave.
Covid-19 is a textbook case of commercial frustration. This is a crisis on a dramatic and shocking scale. Countries across the world, on lockdown mode to contain the virus, are creating the conditions for the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
In Malaysia employment contracts are at the risk of frustration under section 57(2) of the Contracts Act 1950. Due to restrictions on movement and commercial activities by MCO that have now lasted for 6 weeks and are still continuing with no indication of when these will end or what social distancing laws will there be after that, many employers should now be able to legally say that their contracts with their workers have been frustrated. To be fair, these companies ought to be allowed to treat their employments as ended and no longer valid.
Labour is a special species of contracts where government often steps in in time of crisis on the side of workers. But this time the problem is so much larger in size and repercussions. Tackling it will overwhelm any policy makers in the period ahead unless countries pass laws to freeze contracts and save them from breach. This is what Singapore and Denmark did recently in passing their Covid legislations. Since 2009 Australia has its Fair Work Act that allows the employees to be stood down on no wages when they cannot do useful work due to matters outside the employer’s control such as inclement weather and now Covid-19.
While most companies are making hard decisions about cashflow, income and monthly survival, more of them have reached a point where they must cut staff back to the number they really need in order to protect the jobs of those that stay.
As the country enters further into an indefinite period of lockdown and an uncertain social, financial, commercial, health and logistical aftermath, the logic of hibernation will be harder to ignore.
A clear-headed way out of this quagmire is first for both employer and workers to accept that a situation giving rise to frustration of contract exist now. Next is for both sides to agree in good faith to avoid frustration by allowing the employment contract to hibernate and to stand down the workers so that money, jobs, and relationships can be protected and preserved. By hibernating, companies and staff are in fact agreeing to save the employment from frustration.
Any staff who is willing and able to work remotely or at home should be given freelance assignments and income to sustain himself during hibernation. The rest will need to think of ways to monetize their other skills or hobbies. Companies can only help those who are willing to learn new skills to prepare for life and work after Covid 19. Paying a person just to sit at home without having to work or contribute does not make social or commercial sense even in weird times like this.
This will give the company the time, money and focus it needs to conserve its resources, plan its recovery and transform itself internally for the big changes and opportunities that will certainly come its way when the crisis is over.
Asking staff to sacrifice by taking a pay cut or go on unpaid leave now so that they will have the same pay and job waiting for them is committing to a promise you may be forced to break. Neither does it make sense to pay staff in full for not working or decide now whom to sack or keep when things and situations are so unclear and changing day by day.
“If it is to your advantage, make a forward move; if not, stay where you are. Anger may in time change to happiness, annoyance can revert to joy. But a State that has been destroyed cannot be brought back to life. Hence the enlightened ruler is heedful, and the good general full of caution. This is the way to keep a State at peace and an army intact.”
(19-22, The Art of War, 12)
In our next post we will tell you about HERA – the Hibernation of Employment and Resumption Agreement and the steps to take in hibernating your business and standing down your employees while at the same time providing them with freelance work and alternative income.
Lim Yew Yi and Kerk Boon Leng