ABU DHABI // Adolescents around the world are used to buying themselves a little independence with a few hours of paid work each week. Until now, that has not been the case in the UAE, where young people were banned from working until their 18th birthday.
That restriction ended this week, when new labour regulations came into force that allows UAE nationals and expatriates to work for up to six hours a day once they reach 15.
There are limits, however. Under-18s must be given an hour's break after four hours, and cannot work weekends or national holidays. There are also stringent safety requirements.
"We want to make use and benefit from people who are already in the country," said Humaid al Sawaidi, the under-secretary at the Ministry of Labour.
"From the age of 15 to 60, people are economically active. These people can, and should, work."
He suggested teenagers who take on jobs in their spare time would be better prepared for the world of work, while helping their families. "They will be able to go into the market, gain experience, expertise, and training," he said. "This could also help them in getting a job later on. Many families will benefit a great deal from their children working. Of course none of this is obligatory, and no companies have applied for labour cards for teenagers yet."
He suggested that enabling local teenagers to work would reduce the need for imported labour in some areas. "Instead of using people from abroad, why not use someone from here?"
Although they do not include any provision for minimum wages, the regulations preclude children from taking 31 categories of work.
Working underground is banned, as is toiling in front of a baker's oven. Bars and nightclubs are out, too. Boys are not allowed to carry more than 15kg, and girls just 10kg.
Parents must give their consent before their child starts a job, and teenagers must get a certificate stating that they are fit for work.
Some large companies have not yet considered employing under-18s, while several smaller stores expressed interest, saying adolescents might be a useful addition.
"We have no vacancies now, but later on we can employ them, to stack food on shelves, or work in delivery," said Abdulnasser Mohamed, the store manager at Saif Mohamed Grocery on Airport Road.
However, some experts expressed concern that teenagers might let paid work supplant their schooling.
"It is a good opportunity for young people to try different jobs and different occupations, learn how to manage finances, understand the value of money," said Natasha Ridge, a researcher from the Dubai School of Government. "We want to be careful, though - this is an addition to going to school rather than replacing school."
Hina Laghari, a 17-year-old from Pakistan residing in Al Ain, said her parents shared that fear; she will not be allowed to work.
"We want her to concentrate on her education," said her mother, Umm Hina.
Other parents are looking forward to their children being able to help out with the family finances.
"I have six children, two of them now can work," said Umm Saleh, a 56-year-old Jordanian who lives in Sharjah.
Need for balance between work and school
Seventeen-year-old Shaima Abdulrahman is just one teenager planning on taking advantage of the new rules.
Now legally able to work, the Emirati, from Abu Dhabi, said she would start looking for a job "as soon as possible".
"I think this is awesome news," she said. "I have always been dying to work, just to be able to get my own stuff, my own shoes, and bags, and I want a Chanel bracelet."
However, Shaima's enthusiasm is not shared by everybody.
"I told my local friends and they said they wouldn't want to work, they think it's an insult," she said. "They would say 'I'd rather die than work and earn my own money' when they already have millions. We have some girls who come to school because they like to, not because they have to, because they will get married and get their own money from their husbands, they will never need to work."
Others said they would be happy to find a job, but their parents would not allow it. "It isn't accepted in all local families, because there is no need for work."
Her mother, Umm Mohamed, said she would not stand in her daughter's way of finding employment, as long as she could find a proper balance between work and school.
"This depends on how smart and successful the teenager is," Umm Mohamed said. "Some are smart and they can. It would be good if she worked to gain experience in certain jobs, like journalism."
Her aunt, Christine Montoya, a 40-year-old Emirati from Abu Dhabi, believes the new regulations will have positive and negative effects. "In a way it is good to know how to work on daily basis, although students could stop going to school and concentrate on working, which is not good," she said.