Overview: Costa Rica

Contributed by Fernando Vargas-Winiker, EY Law

This article contains an overview on Costa Rica, taking into account the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in certain areas, coupled with the acceleration of trends that were already in motion before this pandemic started, all amid a ‘new normal’ stage that continuously triggers game-changing and challenging transformations.

Costa Rica, with its long-standing democratic tradition – having abolished its army in 1948; ranking at the top of the list of nations of the American continent in literacy, health and life expectancy; its wide-array of trade and commercial agreements with its major trading partners; and its long-standing and attractive investment programmes (such as the Free Trade Zone Regime) – now has to embrace and facilitate this period of transformation. It must redouble efforts to continue being a leader in the region, as a major hub for technological development, highly specialized shared services and manufacturing operations, while promoting a stable environment that enables the development of technological transformation and innovation.

Currently, Costa Rica is a major centre for the aforementioned added-value operations – headquartering subsidiaries for the Latin American operations of major transnational Fortune 500 corporations and other high-profile regional companies – and it is expected that these operations continue to increase as many companies recalibrate the supply chain seeking competitive nearshoring options in a new ‘decoupling’ setting.

To continue this path, the country has taken two major steps in the last two years to improve its finances and regulatory framework, the second taking place during Covid-19 times:

The first step consisted of a major and long-overdue overhaul of the tax legislation, albeit maintaining the tax territoriality principle. On 4 December 2018, Costa Rica enacted a major tax reform through the ‘Law for the Strengthening of Public Finances’, incorporating new rules regarding income tax, fiscal periods, permanent establishments and taxable events, taxation of capital income and capital gains and losses, and the Value-Added Tax (VAT) at a rate of 13%, excluding certain goods and services.

As will be the case in most countries in the world, further tax legislation is expected to improve the state’s finances, aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic, all of which will increase the scope of reporting and compliance of tax and related regulatory obligations.

The second step was the culmination of the long process for being unanimously admitted into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on May 2020. For admittance, Costa Rica had to revamp its regulatory framework by approving specific legislation in areas such as investment, anti-corruption, corporate governance, financial markets, private insurance, competition, tax, public governance, statistics, economics and development, education, employment, health, trade and export credits, agriculture, fishing, scientific and technological policies, digital economy and consumer protection. It is expected that all the approved legislation required to become a member, in addition to future commitments, will pave the way for strengthening Costa Rica’s position in the global markets as a regional leader in many of these areas, pursuant to international practices and standards.

Even before being admitted to the OECD, Costa Rica had adopted the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) as the basis for its legislation regulating protection of personal data and information under the self-determination, confidentiality, consent and use and protection of data principles.

The recent amendments to the competition law also follow OECD principles and practices, and in certain aspects, new rules are even more stringent for merger control and anti-competitive practices.

Moreover, as part of the public governance policies, the government is promoting and implementing through Mideplan-MEIC Guideline 085 a ‘digital government plan’ procuring the simplification of administrative procedures (in part to counter the increase of regulation), support to SMEs and business ventures, employability and investment in public infrastructure. This type of plan, along with strong public/private partnerships, is crucial for developing the necessary infrastructure to achieve digital transformation and maintain Costa Rica’s standing in the region.

In the labor law and practices realm, Covid-19 has reshaped the workplace, and the new trends in relation thereto are here to stay. As in other countries, the ‘new normal’ in Costa Rica will be working remotely on a permanent basis or, at least, applying a hybrid model that allows certain employees to work remotely, whilst others continue to work in the office. Setting rotating shifts as part of this hybrid model will allow using smaller office spaces, which will generate savings, not only in office space, but also on supplies, transportation, food and other costs related to physical work in the office.

Costa Rica has been ready to properly apply remote work or ‘work from home’ by timely approving legislation in September 2019. This legislation is quite flexible, as it allows the parties to negotiate the terms and conditions for each specific case, but seeking a proper balance by mandating employers to follow proper practices in its internal procedures to ensure the employee’s right to disconnect and avoid ‘burnout’ as a work-derived sickness. Employers must take a hands-on approach to ensure that employees have a proper office environment in their homes.

New labour legislation allows flexible work schedules and provides that an employee’s performance is measured based on the fulfilment of objectives and not just in the completion of daily shifts. The outsourcing of all tasks that are not related to the company’s core-business will become more common. Specialized and technical experience will be more relevant when selecting a service provider.

We also expect an increasing number of labour disputes to be solved through mediation and alternative dispute resolution centres.

Technology, as a major disruptive force on employment through artificial intelligence, is also continuously transforming the way standardized legal work is delivered, and we expect clients to seek solutions that improve the effectiveness of the contracting process and the contract life cycle management, the assistance and support to clients and GCs in the development of responses to regulatory events and business changes, regulatory response and compliance. We understand that GCs need to focus more on strategic matters, and providing the technological tools for such standardized legal work will be expected to be part of value proposals to clients. That is why at EY Law, we have spearheaded the legal managed services industry.

Other notable trends have been the increase in debt restructuring matters as the expected scope and duration of the Covid-19 emergency remain unclear, intensifying economic implications for many industries. This situation has increased the work related to debt restructuring, insolvency strategies and other ‘hibernation’ measures, the preservation of business continuity, along with liquidity and funding.

We have also been instrumental in advising retail clients on the implementation of e-commerce platforms as the region is experiencing a surge in online shopping.

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