x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Yes, UAE workers, National Day is an official holiday

Have a problem? Been treated unfairly? Our consumer advocate is on the case for you.

Can you tell me if employees can be forced to work on National Day? Our boss has said that it is not a religious holiday, so he does not have to give us the day off. CC & CY Dubai National Day, which falls on December 2, is an official holiday, so all employees are entitled to a day off with full wages. Article 74 of the UAE Labour Law states the following: "Each worker shall be entitled to official holiday with full pay" on specific dates or holidays, which includes National Day.

In certain industries, it is common for staff to work on official holidays, but by law they should be given either a day off in lieu or paid separately for the additional day of work.

The New Zealand-based company we work for gets paid, we assume, in dirhams. They convert it into New Zealand dollars, then convert it back to dirhams at a fixed exchange rate of Dh2.2, which is set by the company. They then pay our salaries in dirhams at a much lower rate, even less than what is stated in the Arabic contract registered with the Labour Department. The company we work for is not a bank or a finance company - either way, this does not seem fair. How can the company make money from our salaries? Is this legal?

TA Abu Dhabi The basic salary on TA's Arabic contract shows a fixed amount per month, all in dirhams. But the New Zealand contract states a fixed amount per annum in NZ dollars - and even more confusing, TA tells me that employees opted for a 50-50 split of dirhams and NZ dollars. In any event, by using a flat exchange rate of Dh2.2 the company would be underpaying its employees by about 15 per cent on the dirhams half of the contract.

By federal law, the Arabic-language contract lodged with the Labour Courts takes precedence, but personal agreements about payment can be enforceable over and above this "official" contract. The tricky part is deciding which exchange rate to use - and if the company had written agreement from staff to use a lower rate, they do not have a right to complain. (On the other hand, if the company is being paid wholly in dirhams, it would seem strange for them to exchange the currency back and forth, but we have no evidence of this either way.)

My suggestion is that staff request formal documentation from the company regarding the exchange rate to be used, perhaps to be reviewed on fixed dates to ensure that the rate is fair to all parties. I have been told that the company is planning to use a revised rate, although even this would still come in far below the retail rate of Dh2.68 at press time. Furthermore, the company has said that they would like staff to sign new contracts, in Arabic, to reflect the lower amounts. But this means that staff could continue to lose out.

Because exchange rates fluctuate, and staff have chosen a 50-50 split, my recommendation is that both sides negotiate the position to be fairer to all parties. It also seems to me that staff have been underpaid because of the exchange rates the company is using, so provided that employees did not agree formally with the lower rate the staff have the right to request back pay. If the company does not comply, the case can be taken to the Ministry of Labour.

We are leaving the UAE, and own a property in Abu Dhabi for which one final payment is due in 2012. Ideally, we would like to sell this property once the market picks up. Do we need to keep a bank account open here until this time, or can we handle all of this through our lawyer? We do not want to keep an active bank account, as HSBC requires a minimum balance of Dh5,000. PV Abu Dhabi

There is no legal requirement to have a UAE bank account if you own a property here, assuming you do not have a mortgage. However, I would recommend that you maintain an account, as it is possible that when you sell the property the payment could be in the form of a cheque - and accounts held in other countries are not likely to accept a cheque denominated in dirhams. Alternatively, you could insist that payment be made to an overseas account in US dollars, as the peg keeps the exchange rate constant. Also, not all UAE banks insist on a minimum balance, especially if you need only a simple cheque/savings account.

But as I have warned before in this column, there should be some activity every few months so that the bank doesn't close the account. Therefore, it is best to open an account that allows you to use internet banking from abroad. Keren Bobker is an independent financial adviser with Holborn Assets in Dubai. Write to her at keren@holbornassets.com Letters can also be sent to onyourside@thenational.ae