Recruitment consultants in the UAE are breaking the law by charging people looking for work, in the midst of a job shortage caused by the global financial slowdown. Several firms based in Dubai and Sharjah have been found to be illegally demanding payment of as much as Dh400 (US$110) during the recruitment process for "registration" and "job arrangement" from applicants, an investigation by The National can reveal.
Some firms see dozens of job hunters every day - in some cases more than 100. Industry experts say the problem has become more widespread recently and is also affecting white-collar workers. Charging fees to a candidate seeking employment is illegal in the UAE; only employers can be asked to pay. "It makes the whole reputation of the industry look very unprofessional," said Jason Armes, managing director of the Dubai-based recruiter Qismet Consulting, which does not charge fees to job hunters.
"The potential for this kind of practice has always been there, but the economic situation at the moment means people are getting away with it much more because people are desperate to stay." Two of the agencies charging fees advertise in national newspapers. On application, candidates are asked to attend an interview with the agency where they are charged Dh100 for "registration" so their application can be processed.
A further Dh300 is then requested on a second interview as a "job arrangement" fee, with the agencies able to give only sketchy details of the supposed vacancies. Ayham Kalla, 34, a freelance photographer from Syria, has experience of both agencies, coming into contact with one last month. "It looked like the ad was straight from the company. I rang and they said to come any time for an interview, which I thought was weird," he said. "I only discovered after I got there it was a recruitment agency."
During the "interview", Mr Kalla was asked by a woman at the agency for Dh100, ostensibly as a one-off payment. "She promised me she had a job for me," he said. However, he was called back in for another interview and told he would have to pay a further Dh300 to proceed. Mr Kalla later applied for a job with another firm. Again the advertisement had been placed by an agency. "It was the same scenario; she asked for Dh100, so I said would she ask for Dh300 later. Her answer was yes, so I left," he said.
Humaid bin Deemas, acting director general of the Ministry of Labour, said the law was clear. "It prevents the agency from taking any fees from the job seeker, either in cash or as a reward, in return for any activity related to recruitment procedures. The ministry is dealing seriously with any received complaints supported by evidence and will send it to the related department to take appropriate action against the party in breach."
At one agency visited by an undercover reporter from The National, six people were being interviewed at the same time in one room. When the reporter revealed her identity, the owner of the company claimed it had to charge fees to cover its costs. "We have staff, we have cars, petrol, we organise interviews. You think all of this is free?" he said. At another agency's office the visitors' book had more than 25 entries by 3pm, and there were more than 25 job seekers being interviewed or waiting to be seen.
Another agency asked The National's undercover reporter for a Dh150 fee. The interviewer claimed it was a "membership fee" that was compulsory for the job application to proceed, but the form to be signed stated the fee was for "training". When confronted, the agency said it could levy fees because it was registered as a "management consultant" not a recruitment consultant, despite offering to find people jobs. It insisted the fees were for "membership".
But Mr bin Deemas said a company acting outside its licence and charging fees to job seekers was "breaking the law twice. We encourage any citizen or resident to make sure that the company they are dealing with has a recruiting licence and to report any violation cases they might discover to the ministry," he said. Mike Hynes, managing partner at Kershaw Leonard, a recruitment consultancy that does not charge fees to job seekers, called for more regulation of the industry. "They [agencies] should be closed, their licences should be revoked and they should not be allowed to set up another recruitment consultancy if they have been blatantly flouting the law," he said.
An officer at Sharjah Police said: "Many companies are trying this. But these companies are authorised by the economic department so we can't do anything." Mohammed Shael, the chief executive officer of the business registration and licensing division of the Dubai Department for Economic Development, which licenses all businesses in the emirate, said the department would investigate direct complaints and follow them up with the Ministry of Labour. However, it had not received any complaints about the 32 recruitment companies registered with it.
Janni Bezuidenhout, 38, a South African applying for an executive-level position, said one company had demanded Dh1,500 from him. He said he paid, confident he would be able to get his money back. "I wanted to see what happened, to take it to the next stage," he said. "They said there would be an interview in three or four days and the position was guaranteed to be mine. I still haven't got a call about the position."
He went into the office several days later and demanded his money back, which he said was returned when he began to ring the police. "Twenty-five people at any given time paying at least Dh150 each? That's a tremendous amount," he said. Ian Giulianotti, the director of Nadia Recruitment and Training, said the practice of charging candidates was becoming more prevalent, and that although it had always been a problem, it was now also beginning to affect white-collar workers. "People are desperate to find a job or they have to leave."