The UAE has a high percentage of working women which statistics recognise as an important and productive workforce. With this in mind, and factoring in the often busy and stressful lifestyle we lead in the UAE, it's arguable that the current Labour Law does not provide female workers with adequate time off after having children.
The employment of women in the private sector is governed by Chapter 3 (articles 27 – 32) of Federal Law No.8 of 1980 (as amended) (The Labour Law). There are also Common Provisions as to the employment of young persons and women in articles 33 and 34.
The International Labour Organisation suggests that expectant and nursing mothers need adequate time to rest and get back to health as well as dedicate the important first months to look after their newborn baby. Having sufficient employment benefits in place is crucial to help expectant and nursing mothers avoid discrimination that may adversely affect their employment or their chances of keeping their employment, and in order to maintain equal treatment for all employees, regardless of gender. Keeping women in the workforce is an important aspect of a sustainable economy.
Under Article 33 of the Labour Law, women are only granted 45 days of fully paid maternity leave after a period of continuous employment of one year. If they have not completed one year of service, they are eligible for 45 days maternity leave on half pay.
Article 33 doesn't clearly specify whether the 45 days maternity leave are calendar days or working days, however, it has been widely interpreted and applied under the law as being calendar days. New mothers may extend their maternity leave with additional unpaid leave up to 100 consecutive or interrupted days if they can prove they have a medical condition preventing them from returning to work evidenced by a medical report. Maternity leave and any additional leave for this purpose should not be counted as part of normal leave such as annual leave, sick leave and unpaid leave.
Quite ironically, in a country with strong family values, maternity leave is arguably insufficient for a working mother to give birth, recover and nurse her infant. The UAE's maternity leave allowance is the lowest in the world, being more than 50% lower than the global standard set by the International Labour Organization, according to UN statistics.
The International Labour Organisations Maternity Protection Convention No.183 of 2000sets out the international standard for maternity leave in order to promote equality amongst women in the workforce. It was also created to protect the health and wellbeing of the mother and child as well as promote equality and diversity in economic and social development. It was also created as a means for countries to develop their national laws and practices in line with international best practice. This convention recommends that employers provide 14 weeks maternity leave.
It also states that women on maternity leave should be entitled to a cash benefit which ensures that they and their infants have an adequate standard of wellbeing. This amount should not be less than two-thirds of their previous wage or a comparable amount.
The international guidelines set out by the convention restricts employers from terminating the employment of a female worker during pregnancy or maternity leave or a period following her return to work (except on grounds unrelated to the foregoing). It also ensures that women returning from maternity leave come back to the same position and are paid at the same rate.
A UN report states that only 85 countries worldwide meet these international standards for the minimum duration of maternity leave and only two out of five meet the minimum standard for cash benefits.
The UAE positions itself as a country with international standards and prides itself on the empowerment of women, however, the maternity policy does not reflect this view in the private sector. The public sector however, allows female employees up to 60 days paid maternity leave and 100 days of unpaid leave.
In light of the above, it would make sense to amend the labour law for the private sector in order to meet international standards as set out in the UN Convention.
New fathers in the private sector are obliged to use another type of leave, such as annual leave or unpaid leave in order to support their wives and welcome their new child.
In the public sector paternity leave has been legally recognised and enforced. Fathers currently receive paternity leave of three consecutive working days during the first month of the child's birth.
Arguably, paid paternity leave should be in force by law for the private sector too and additional periods of unpaid leave should be granted to new fathers, especially where the mother may have encountered difficulties with her pregnancy or the delivery of the child or where the newborn suffers any complications.
In unfortunate circumstances, where the mother passes away during child delivery, this means a drastic change in the circumstances of a working father and the law should also cater for situations such as this.
Article 34 of the Labour Law states that a working mother nursing her infant should receive two breaks of 30 minutes each, in addition to other standard breaks, in order to breastfeed her infant until the infant is one and a half years old. The nursing breaks are to be considered as a part of normal working hours and should be treated with the same remuneration. There is no need to present any document showing proof of breastfeeding.
In the UAE, a Muslim country that adheres to international standards, it is necessary to accommodate adequate allowances to breastfeeding mothers, especially as women are encouraged under their religion to breastfeed their children for up to two years. The World Health Organization recommends that women breastfeed their children until they are six months old, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up until the age of two years or older.
Article 34 does not take into consideration any transportation issues with regards to the 30 minute feeding breaks and it is unlikely that working mothers live close enough to their place of work to actually utilize this. Reducing the working hours of nursing women would go some way to mitigating this issue. The UN Convention on Maternity Protection allows for one or more daily breaks or a reduction in working hours for the purposes of breastfeeding.
Due, in part, to these difficulties, many new mothers do not continue with their employment as they find it difficult to combine looking after their new baby with working hours.
The government, through its legislation, should support working women by meeting international standards and providing appropriate nursing breaks in which to tend to their child, as well as flexible break periods which work to the mutual benefit of the mother and the employer.
At the moment, the labour law does not contain any provisions for leave due to miscarriage. Women who undergo a natural or operational miscarriage are obliged to use their sick leave allowance to recover from both the physical, emotional and psychological trauma. It could be construed as insensitive that the legislation does not provide for leave under these circumstances and this should be addressed.
It is widely known around the world that women need time to recover from child birth and look after their newborn infants, especially where there are any complications. It is also widely known that new mothers need the support of their husbands for a reasonable period. Additional considerations should also be made for parents with children that suffer medical complications or need to remain in hospital due to prematurity or disability for example.
Whilst the UAE has taken steps towards meeting international standards in maternity and paternity rights, it remains some distance from recommended standards. As the UAE's economy continues to grow and the working population increases, it would benefit both employers and employees for the regulations to be reviewed and updated according to international expectations in order to attract and retain a talented workforce.
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