Let's talk about maternity and paternity leave in the UAE.
6 October 2013| Last updated on 1 August 2017
As many working women with young children will testify, the current levels of maternity leave offered by most employers, albeit in accordance with the law, are woefully insufficient and operate contrary to good work/life balance and the development of a healthy and happy family environment.
Although women have for a number of years complained about the amount of maternity leave they receive, these complaints are now being heard and supported by officials in the Ministry of Labour and prominent Human Resources experts.
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The very real concern that the Ministry of Labour has come to realise is that highly educated and experienced expat women, who are leaders in their fields of expertise, may begin to reconsider their positions once they begin to plan their family. The loss of such women, in addition to similarly qualified and experienced Emirati women in the public sector, would have severe implications for the continued development of the country and the economy. It would also send out a very negative message to expat women considering a future career in the UAE; namely that if they want to combine career and family they should look elsewhere.
How much maternity leave is an expat worker in the UAE entitled to? Following the birth of their child, an expat worker in the private sector is entitled to 45 calendar days of maternity leave. Those working in the public sector enjoy a slightly longer period of time - 60 calendar days. 45 days is equivalent to just over six weeks in total, which by many people’s thinking is precious little time for any woman to allow her body to readjust after the birth, and also to ensure the natural bond between mother and child develops accordingly. Once the period of maternity leave has elapsed, the woman can opt to take an additional 100 consecutive days or calendar days of unpaid leave if either woman or child has a pregnancy or birth related illness.
Returning to work
Following a return to work, the mother is entitled to a 30 minute breastfeeding break twice a day for a period up to and not exceeding 18 months after the birth. These 30 minute breaks have also come in for widespread criticism purely because it does not work in practical terms. Unless the infant is in a creche or nursery nearby, the mother will be unable to return to the infant, breastfeed and then return to work within the time allowed. In most cases, workers live at least 30 minutes drive from their homes, and many women, or at least those who aware of the entitlement, opt against it and try to come to some sort of separate agreement with their management team.
As far back as 2011, Human Resources experts in the UAE began warning both the government and employers that maternity laws were causing large numbers of female workers to leave the workforce. At this time, the ratio of female to male workers in the UAE was already one of the lowest in the world. These experts also felt that maternity laws which actively discriminated against women were one of the main reasons for this poor percentage of female workers. In addition, and despite it being against the law, many employers questioned female applicants during interview to ascertain their views on marriage and children, and subsequently used this information when deciding on whether or not they should get the job. Also highlighted was the point that some women failed to return to work if their employers only offered the basic minimum maternity benefits as required by law.
Have things changed in the time that has since passed? The simple answer is no. 45 days and 60 days are still considered far below the international norm for maternity leave, making it difficult for women to hold on to and further their career. When comparing maternity benefit in the UAE against other developed countries, it becomes increasingly evident that change is long overdue. Women in the United Kingdom, for example, receive three months or 12 weeks of fully paid maternity leave. They can then take an additional two months (eight weeks) for half pay. UK workers are also able to combine maternity leave with annual leave, something that women in the UAE are unable to do.
How about men?
The situation for male workers is even worse, as the UAE does not have any compulsory laws or labour regulations concerning paternity leave. There are provisions within the labour law for it, but they are rarely acted upon and are not enshrined in policy. It is therefore solely at the discretion of the employer as to whether or not they provide paternity leave to their male employees. As it currently stands, only a small number of companies based in the UAE provide paternity benefit and the majority do not. Even then, paternity leave amounts in most cases to just three days. Again, taking the United Kingdom as a comparison, male workers can receive one to two weeks of paternity leave on full pay. There is also an option of either the mother or father requesting an additional 26 weeks of paid leave, which is undoubtedly very beneficial if complications arose during the birth and further medical attention for mother or child is required.
What improvements can be made to current labour laws that will benefit the family as a whole? Apart from actually increasing the amount of days allowed under maternity leave, additional smaller measures could be adopted by employers in the short term to help alleviate the stresses and strain women feel upon returning to work. The introduction of flexitime work arrangements for women that are breastfeeding would go a long way to helping mothers meet both their work and family commitments. Flexitime allows the employee to choose work starting times, lunch times and work finishing times that are most convenient to them, provided the core work and required number of working hours each week are met. Another would be to allow both parents to combine maternity or paternity leave with annual leave, with the option to take further unpaid leave if desired.
Despite the great strides the UAE has taken in recent decades, its labour laws and particularly those concerning maternity leave require urgent attention and review. The comments from the Ministry of Labour, although welcome, now need to be backed up with action and meaningful reform.