x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Part-time employment offers a balance for working families

A growing number of people are taking advantage of the UAE's new regulations that allow part-time work. For many, it is an opportunity to pursue their careers without having to lose their focus on family and their responsibilities.

Lesley Cully works as a part-time sales assistant for Magrudy's on Beach Road in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
Lesley Cully works as a part-time sales assistant for Magrudy's on Beach Road in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

A growing number of people are taking advantage of the UAE's new regulations that allow part-time work. For many, it is an opportunity to pursue their careers without having to lose their focus on family and their responsibilities. Alice Haine reports

When Lesley Cully, a Briton, returned to work after taking a career break to care for her young family, she wanted a part-time job that catered to her children's needs as well as her passion for books.

So when a part-time sales assistant's job was advertised at Magrudy's, the UAE-wide bookstore, she applied immediately and landed what she describes as her "dream job".

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Now, the mother of two girls, aged six and three, who moved to the UAE in 2006, works from 8.30am to 1.30pm five days a week and says she is not only thrilled about being back in the workplace, but also with the extra income.

"I've always wanted to work in a book store because I love books, but I needed a job that allowed me to work while the girls were at school," says Mrs Cully, 40, whose income supplements the salary earned by her IT consultant husband, Clive, also 40.

"And as much as I did not want to rely on the money coming in, it certainly helps. I bring in about Dh5,000 a month, which has proved to be quite useful. It pays for our maid, treating the girls and for the occasional manicure or pedicure for me."

Mrs Cully is part of a growing band of people taking advantage of part-time working regulations introduced by the Ministry of Labour in January that allow her to work under her husband's sponsorship.

And it is not only wives who benefit from the new laws. Those in full-time employment who would like to earn extra cash with a second job can now do so legally, while those 15 to 18 and university students can also take up casual work.

The intention, says Humaid al Suwaidi, the undersecretary at the ministry, was to help more people join the workforce and encourage companies to hire people already in the country rather than "resorting to foreign labour".

Alexander McGeoch, the head of employment and general legal services at the Dubai-based law firm Hadef & Partners, says the new regulations go even further. Although working part-time under a husband's sponsorship, as Mrs Cully does, has been legal for some time as long as the husband issues a letter of permission to the employer, the legislation has made the arrangement clearer and more accessible.

"These new ministerial orders are statements of policy as much as a law," Mr McGeoch says. "They are regularising something that was not perhaps illegal, but wasn't quite what the authorities wanted. So now, nobody needs to have any concerns that to have a part-time job is unlawful. In particular, the new legislation has made it clear that working part-time for a second employer, in addition to having a 'main', or 'day job', is quite lawful."

For Suhair Rehman, 26, the new regulation has transformed her life because she can now work from home as a social media strategist.

"I've wanted a part-time job for some time and approached several companies to offer my services, but no one was interested. They told me they only wanted to take people full time, which was out of the question with two children at home," says Mrs Rehman, who was born and brought up in Sharjah.

Her situation changed this year when her brother's employer, a digital-solutions company, heard about her talents and offered her a Dh4,000-a-month freelance position, enabling her to work from home to fit around her five-year-old son and three-year-old daughter.

"I put in about eight hours a day, five days a week," says Mrs Rehman, who shares her four-bedroom apartment with her husband, Feroz, 30, and his extended family. "It sounds like a lot, but I can work in the morning or even at midnight if I want as long as the work gets done."

Mrs Rehman says the position has done wonders for her self-esteem.

"Going to work and earning my own money is a big thing," she says. "After completing high school, I got married straight away and have always been a full-time mum, so this is my first job.

"The job is my passion, but it's about money, too. That gives you motivation because it helps financially and while my husband's income covers everything, rather than him saying I don't have money for designer shoes or a handbag, I can spend on whatever I want."

Mrs Cully, a fellow part-timer who worked as a gas safety and compliance officer in the UK, also feels happy about her newfound financial independence.

"My husband's wage is not bad; I don't need to work, but I do feel I am contributing more now," Mrs Cully says, adding that her husband's salary package does not fully cover their Dh180,000 rent for a four-bedroom villa in Dubai's Jumeirah area or their children's school fees.

"I've never felt beholden to my husband not earning any money because I contributed in bringing up the children. But I do feel better drawing money out of my account as I've earned it."

Although it's a win-win situation for the part-timers who want to earn an income without committing to full-time work, employers also gain from being able to hire casual staff during peak seasons and having access to a whole new talent pool right on their doorstep.

"If you're at start-up stage and don't know how much business you're going to get, then it makes sense to hire part-time staff because it lowers the costs," says Christo Daniels, the managing director of Morgan McKinley, a professional recruitment consultancy.

For Patrick de Groot, the owner and director of development at DutchKid and JustKidding, hiring mothers for part-time work as "mum experts" in his baby store has done wonders for his company's profile.

"Only an actual parent can tell another parent confidently what he or she should be buying for a new baby," he says. "Although our predominantly Filipino staff have the ability to demonstrate products extremely well, they realise that because they don't have actual parenting knowledge, they fall short when it comes to giving advice on what to buy first when speaking to a parent of a different nationality."

Mr de Groot says sponsoring his staff is a cost he is happy to accept, but most of his "expert mums", who work up to 60 hours a month, do not want that.

"Our mums are typically paid on an hourly basis because they can't commit to a full-time job. We've been able to hire them by applying for a labour card and leaving them on their husband's work sponsorship. That way, we can arrange for a part-time role."

Mr McGeoch says the new legislation also shows how much the labour market has grown and developed in the Emirates over the past few decades.

"Historically, foreigners came here just to work," he says. "They were under the sponsorship of an employer who was responsible for their conduct and for getting them out of the country at the end of the contract.

"It's a very different place now. People come here to live long term; they've invested in property here and it's a much more diverse and complicated place and the UAE Government's new policy is much more welcoming now.

"It signals to the world that the UAE is a mature labour market now, whereas before it was rudimentary and highly regulated. It is a milestone to mark a new era of a much more flexible approach."

As well as benefitting those who want to utilise their skills with flexible hours, it also helps schoolchildren and students trying to get hands-on work experience.

This was the case for the media professional Amna Salman, 21, who enjoyed several part-time positions in media organisations as a student, earning between Dh500 and Dh5,000 a month.

Although Ms Salman, who graduated last year, does not require a labour card to work part-time because she is Emirati, she says it is important for all students to have the opportunities she had.

"Getting hands-on experience is invaluable. I was able to gain soft skills otherwise not taught through textbooks," Ms Salman says.

"I have learnt how the corporate world works and how to survive and grow in the workplace. I also learnt about the value of money and how to save."

Mr Daniels says encouraging expatriate and Emirati students to take up part-time positions or internships will be a boost to the UAE's graduate market.

"Students whose parents are long-term expats in the UAE tend to go away to university and then into the graduate talent pool for the country they studied rather than coming back to the UAE," he says.

"So this is an opportunistic area for employers, who can bring in potential managers of the future by targeting people who are less qualified [but] who make financial sense."

ahaine@thenational.ae