Workations are rapidly becoming a significant employee benefit, for a good reason. Why should employees only work from home if they are no longer expected to work from the office? Allowing them to work from abroad for some time is an excellent example of implementing increased flexibility, similar to enabling them to work from home. For employers, the beauty of flexibility as a benefit is that it is more or less free of costs. That is, as long as the employer does not pay for the workation and the workation does not trigger any unexpected obligations for the employer. As an employer can decide on the first topic, this white paper focuses on the second topic.
Any unexpected obligations for the employer are likely to relate to the compliance risks around workations. A practical example would be the obligation for the employer to set up payroll in the destination country or the employer's liability in case the employee requires medical assistance during a workation. This raises the question of which compliance risks are related to workations, and how employers can manage or mitigate these risks.
Definition of Workation
Before diving into the compliance topics, it is essential to align on the definition of a workation. In short, this is a situation where an employee continues to work while temporarily abroad for private purposes.
The following four characteristics are relevant:
1. Abroad. This means outside the country of employment and residence of the employee. The employee will not give up his/her residency in the home country during the workation.
2. Private. The stay abroad is privately driven and has no business objective at all. Thus, a workation is something different than a business trip. A workation can be combined with a business trip, e.g., when the employee stays for a workation after visiting a business seminar.
3. Work. The employee continues to perform work activities for (the benefit of) his/her home country employer only. This means that the employee does not create any local value in the destination country.
4. Temporary. The stay is temporary, namely maximum 183 days in any running 12-month period (accumulated per country). However, many employers have limited workations within their company to a maximum number of working days that lie significantly below these six months, such as 30 or 60 days.
Summary of compliance topics
- Corporate Income Tax: The risk that the employee constitutes a so-called Permanent Establishment (PE). This would trigger a corporate liability for the employer in the destination country. Although this is not necessarily expensive in terms of the taxes due, the administrative burden that comes with this liability is disproportionally high.
- Employment Tax: The risk is that the employer needs to set up payroll to calculate, withhold and remit employment tax in the destination country. If a remote worker constitutes a PE in the destination country, this will also trigger an employment tax liability. On the contrary, as long as a remote worker does not constitute a PE, the employment tax liability is generally only triggered in exceptional cases.
- Social Security: The social security risk around workations is twofold. First is the risk that the employee loses coverage from the home country's social security system. Second, the chance that the social security system of the destination country becomes applicable. Both risks are relatively easy to manage for countries within the EU and countries where a social security treaty is in place.
- Personal Income Tax: The risk is that the employee becomes taxable in the destination country for personal income tax purposes. If this only affects the employer indirectly, e.g., the employee's income tax liability can trigger an employer's employment tax liability.
- VISA / Immigration: Does the employee have the right to work in the destination country? One may question whether a valid working title is required if the visitor's primary purpose is tourism. This is somewhat unclear, as the VISA / Immigration legislation was not written with 'workationers' in mind. Nevertheless, it is essential to consider this topic, as the fines and penalties for illegal labour are generally hefty.
- Local Labour law: The risk that local labour law becomes applicable. Assuming the employment contract explicitly states that the labour law of the home country applies, it is unlikely that local labour law becomes applicable. This may differ for particular arrangements, such as those around minimum wage and working conditions. In this regard, it is relevant to note that notifications based on the so-called Posted Worker Directive are not applicable for employees enjoying a workation. After all, the employer may have approved the workation but did not post the employee. Moreover, the employee does not perform services locally.
- Duty of care: Every employer has a duty of care for its employees. However, it is relatively unclear what this duty of care precisely consists of, i.e., when the duty is fulfilled. Generally, it prescribes the employer to do everything that can be reasonably expected. As a result, an employer's duty of care is likely much lower during a workation than when the employee works from the office. At the same time, it also means that it cannot be excluded that an accident during a workation should be considered a work accident for which the employer bears the (partial) responsibility.
- Internet and Data security: The risk is that the employee working from abroad breaches security regulations in the home country - such as GDPR regulations - or the destination country. Such as a local prohibition on using VPNs. The breach might also find its origin in client contracts, which may exclude the service providers from performing their services from particular countries.
- Sanctioned countries: Looking at our WorkFlex data, it is rather unlikely that employees want to spend their workation in a country sanctioned by institutions such as the UN or EU. However, this is not impossible thus it is recommended to have the list of these countries available.
The long list above might scare people off, but it should not. The risks hardly differ from those relevant when employees work abroad for business purposes, e.g., during a business trip. Also, employees used to work now and then during their vacation, even before the term workation was invented. Neither of these examples was/are considered a big problem, so one should not make the risks above a red flag all of a sudden for workations only. Instead, one should be educated on the risks and manage or mitigate them.
In-depth assessment: PE-risk
For example, taking a better look leads to the conclusion that it is unlikely that workations create a significant PE risk. As the name suggests, PEs require a certain level of permanency. However, there are no "permanent" temporary workers from abroad. A workation is temporary by character and will generally not be permanent enough. The OECD and the UN support this, the two organisations whose tax treaty models and commentaries have been most widely adopted. Both state that a so-called 'fixed place of business PE' and 'service PE' will usually not be constituted if the presence in the other country is below 183 days. This is one of the reasons why an international stay that exceeds this threshold no longer qualifies as "temporary." As a result, even in countries that have adopted even tighter policies around 'fixed place of business' or 'service PE' than the OECD and UN policies, employees enjoying workations will hardly ever constitute a PE.
Yet, three additional factors need to be considered:
1. Local presence. The employer does not have an office or entity in the destination country. If it does, it must be made clear that the employee does not visit the office or perform activities for the benefit of the local entity. Deviating from this will not always, nor automatically, create a significant PE risk. However, it would make it difficult to confidently state that the workations are not likely to form a PE-risk.
2. Accumulation. For the 183-day threshold, you may be required to look at multiple workations in the same destination country. In other words, accumulating workationers in one country might increase the PE risk in that location.
It's also important to note that this accumulation doesn't simply apply to employees from different departments who enjoy a workation in the same country. PE risk is more likely to increase if there is some organisational overlap. For example, various employees working on the same project accumulate in the same destination country. Although this is often the case for business trips, it is hardly the case for workations. Nevertheless, it does show why it is essential to distinguish between the two from each other.
3. Dependent Agent PE. Lastly, the only type of PE- other than the previously discussed 'fixed place of business' and' service PE' – can still pose a significant risk even if the workation is below 183 days. This concerns the so-called' dependent agent PE. In short, the OECD and UN consider a 'dependent agent' an employee that habitually plays the principal role leading to the conclusion of contracts. It is broadly accepted that "habitually" implies a specific frequency. For example, five contracts where the individual played the leading role. Still, this doesn't exclude the theoretical possibility that a dependent agent constitutes a PE during a workation of one day. For this reason, taking two extra measures is recommended to mitigate and manage the dependent agent PE of workations.
The first one is to determine who qualifies as a dependent agent. Typically, most employees don't, as they do not habitually play this leading role in the conclusion of contracts. Examples of employees more likely to qualify as dependent agents are senior managers and employees in sales and procurement roles. Workation requests of these employees need to be highlighted. A second measure is to assess the actual dependent agent PE risk for these requests. Questions to consider are; how often does the employee usually perform high-risk activities? Can they realistically refrain from performing these activities during the envisioned workation.
Managing and mitigating risks
Besides being educated, employers should manage and mitigate the compliance risks of workations. This can be done in many ways. A common way to start is to draft a policy. It forces the company to consider what it wants to allow - and what not. This is not only relevant for compliance purposes. There can be various business objections against workations, e.g., when the employee is expected to be in the office at a particular time or when the time difference between the home location and destination is too significant.
Further, a crucial part of managing workations is ensuring a process is in place. After all, one cannot manage what one does not know. The process starts with the employee initiating a workation request. After this, it should include a manager's approval, as well as a tax and legal compliance assessment taking into consideration the topics mentioned above. Once the request has been approved, the process should prescribe the request of a social security certificate. Other potential actions may include generating and notifying the company ́s travel insurance company, putting an addendum to the employment agreement in place, generating an employer statement and/or employee instruction sheet. Preferably, this process is supported by a technology that combines all of the process requirements above. Moreover, a technology-enabled process saves both the employee and the employer time, besides having some other advantages. For example, suppose the number of workation requests is high. In that case, the technology can help to focus on those requests that are potentially problematic. Moreover, technology can help put an audit trail in place so that all information and documentation are easily accessible. A solid policy and (technology-enabled) process should pave the way for both the employee and the employer being able to comfortably and safely enjoy a workation. And that is exactly the objective: workations are meant to be an employee benefit, not become an employer burden.