Surviving the giant eraser
Layoffs in the UAE? Yes, something that several months ago seemed almost impossible has happened and large companies, mainly in the property sector, are downsizing. One of the victims is Simon Moss. Mr Moss moved to Dubai this summer and looked forward to a long career in the Emirates. He was happy to leave behind the bad weather of "depressing" London for the sunshine and optimism of the Gulf. "I wanted to try my hand at working abroad so I came to Dubai, and I loved it," the 25-year-old said recently. He believed that working as a sales representative for the property giant Damac would be good for his career, given the region's burgeoning real estate market. Within two months, however, he found himself out of a job after his company laid off 200 workers. "I feel pretty gutted to be honest. It's not the result I wanted," Mr Moss said. Many in the region are echoing his sentiments as their employers come to grips with the slowing economy and re-adjust their business plans. However, if you have been laid off, or if your fear you might be next, your situation need not be hopeless. The economy is expected to grow this year, albeit at a slower pace. Though not as abundant, job opportunities will still be available. And while the UAE's social safety net may not be as comprehensive as those found in many countries in the West, the laws and regulations that do exist can serve to make your plight easier to handle. The problem is that most expatriates are not aware of their rights concerning unemployment. For example, did you know that when you are laid off you are entitled to a paid notice period, severance or gratuity pay at the time of termination, and that your former company must provide flights home for you and your family? What's more, you could ask your former employer to extend your visa, which would allow you to remain in the country to pursue other career opportunities. Kerry Scott-Patel, a senior lawyer at the law firm DLA Piper in Dubai, said UAE law required companies to give employees at least 30 days' notice or pay the employee for that period for redundancy terminations. The law also requires companies to give laid-off employees a gratuity package based on the period of time they have worked for the company. Ms Scott-Patel added that employers must compensate fired employees for any earned but unused holiday leave.
Though laws regulating the termination process are few, Ms Scott-Patel warned that employers should treat the process seriously. "A restructuring process can be carried out relatively rapidly as there is no requirement for collective consultation with workforce representatives such as is required in other jurisdictions. However, employers should be wary of selecting employees for redundancy on arbitrary grounds that might give rise to claims from employees," she said.
If you have lost your job but want to stay in the Gulf, Nofel Izz, director of the recruitment firm JobsinDubai.com, recommends asking your company for a three-month visa, which would allow you time to look for another job. "This is not unheard of; in fact it is quiet common, depending on the relationship an individual has with the employer," he said. Most importantly, if you think your job is in danger, make sure you understand your rights, and do not hesitate to talk to your company's human resources department as many times as it takes. Geraldene Dent, who has spent many years working in human relations for companies in the UK and the UAE, insisted that your company owes you that much.
"If your employer is a decent employer they should give you the news and then follow up the next day to make sure you understood everything, but if they're not doing that I think you should be going back and saying 'look, we had this discussion yesterday, can you just go over it again because I didn't understand everything'," she said. This is admittedly not an easy task, and many who have been laid off complain of a lack of response from their former employers. When I spoke to people who had recently lost their jobs, I heard feelings of frustration, betrayal and anger. Some have privately complained about the manner in which various companies carried out layoffs.
There are stories of people being forced to wait with others outside an office and being called in one by one to hear the bad news, then being told to return days later to learn what type of severance packages they would receive. In addition, some workers have complained about a lack of information and having to fight with their company for a "no objection" certificate, which allows the worker to accept a position with another employer.
Ms Dent said that redundancy termination was new in the UAE, and that therefore many companies had no experience with the matter and have made little or no preparation for the situation. "For years, HR departments have been busy hiring staff, and all of a sudden they have to lay off people; it's a dramatic change for them," she said. The Ministry of Labour has jurisdiction over enforcing these regulations, so if you think your employer has violated any part of your contract take the matter to the ministry.
Some companies appreciate the sensitivity involved in trimming staffs and try to make it less stressful on affected employees. Companies in this category ask for volunteers and often offer them generous severance packages, and when they are forced to fire people they inform them of their rights and offer assistance to make the process easier to handle. Regardless of how you are laid off, keeping a cool head is crucial.
"In a situation like that I don't think anger achieves anything; the calmer people can be the better they can absorb the information that they're given," said Ms Dent. Remember that change of this sort always offers an opportunity to find something better. Never forget that there are options. I was laid off from my job in the computer field six years ago when the dotcom boom came to a crashing end and used my severance package to go to graduate school and become a journalist. I am now much happier - most days - in my new career.
Unfortunately, the layoffs are likely to continue, though some analysts have said that the largest cuts have already been made. Nakheel fired 500 employees last week, Emaar has cut 115 workers, 180 Tameer staffers have lost their jobs and numerous smaller companies have asked scores to clean their desks. But the layoffs are not exclusive to the property industry, and some companies have broached the subject by announcing "restructuring" plans, which can be seen as a euphemism for "we are going to let some employees go".
A woman who works in public relations said her employer gave her notice and allowed her to stay at her job for a few more months while she looked for another one, but in the process it extended her probation period, which she had already completed. She fears that the company did this to get around paying her a gratuity package, because if an employee is let go while on probation they are not eligible for such payment. Rather than fight the company over something she considers unfair, however, she has decided to keep quiet and hopes to find another job.
For those of you who lost property-sector jobs, remember that the UAE is a diversified economy: don't restrict your search to one industry. Mr Izz and other people familiar with the employment market stress that many companies are still hiring, including Etihad Airways. He said some sectors of the economy, such as health care, are still growing and there remained strong demand for medical professionals. Nurses and X-ray technicians are especially needed. Mr Izz stressed that people who have lost their jobs in the property sector must look at other fields, especially since many of those recently laid off had left other professions to become sales agents, hoping to profit from the real estate boom.
No matter what your situation, employed or not, don't forget that these are uncertain times. Many analysts are predicting a prolonged world recession, the worst since the Great Depression of 1929. This will certainly mean leaner times for the UAE. You can never be too prepared. Aadil Kadri, a financial adviser at Continental Financial Services who is based in Dubai, said the time has arrived for UAE residents to start amassing an emergency nest egg. Most experts recommend that you have the equivalent of six months of your salary stored away for difficult times.
Make sure you keep your nest egg in a money-market fund or savings account; this will earn you some interest and allow you to access your cash as you need it. One more warning: in an effort to shield them from any liability arising from unpaid debts, such as mortgages or car loans, many companies ask banks to freeze fired workers' bank accounts. So consider keeping the emergency fund in an account at an institution separate from the one into which your salary is deposited; this will prevent a company from putting a hold on your savings.
What about your property? If you own a home here and are laid off you face a particular problem. A home is an asset that cannot be easily converted to cash, and is often loaded with debt. With property prices down sharply from just a few months ago, Mr Kadri said that for most people selling was not the right option. Instead, he advised those unable to pay their mortgages, or workers who return to their home countries, to do everything possible to keep the property until the market rebounds. Renting is one option. Find a suitable tenant and let the payments cover your mortgage premiums. Another route is negotiating with your mortgage provider. Banks don't like to deal with defaults and many of them will work to arrange alternative payment plans.
While it may seem difficult for the unemployed to see, there is perhaps a bright side to the slowing economy. Inflation has been rampant in the UAE during the past few years, affecting everything from housing prices to groceries. In addition, people who have lived here for any amount of time will tell you that traffic has been getting worse every day. Many economists assert that the slowdown has already cooled inflationary pressures and speculate that price increases will ease next year. That, along with less congestion on your daily commute, is something to be happy about. firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated: December 6, 2008 04:00 AM