x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

No benefit if you don't get it

The Life: More companies are putting money aside for end-of-service gratuities for employees.

More and more UAE companies are setting funds aside the money for employee's gratuities. Philip Cheung / The National
More and more UAE companies are setting funds aside the money for employee's gratuities. Philip Cheung / The National

Will your company be able to pay your end-of-service benefits when you leave?

This is not a worry for many employees but it is hardly a paranoid fantasy.

The good news is that more companies are setting money aside the money for gratuities, as the benefits are known. According to a Towers Watson survey, 24 out of about 100 companies in the UAE created special funds for gratuities, up from eight last year.

Another plus is that 40 per cent of employers are offering benefits beyond the minimum required by the Government, up from 30 per cent last year.

But experts warn there is still the potential for problems if companies continue to pay the benefits out of cash flow instead of ring-fencing those funds as they are accrued.

Businesses in the UAE that follow international accounting standards are required to record end-of-service benefits on their balance sheets each month.

Technically, they should then have enough cash on hand in the bank to cover the liabilities they owe employees.

"That's the theory," says Jahangir Aka, the senior executive officer of SEI Middle East, an investment management firm.

In reality, the benefits are complicated to calculate, a challenge enhanced by a recent Dubai court ruling that companies must include sales commissions when figuring the end-of-service payment. There is no requirement for companies to set aside those funds.

"There's no legal obligation to do that," says Sara Khoja, a senior associate at the law firm Clyde and Co in Dubai. "But it's probably a wise decision because once employment terminates, the liability to pay gratuity is immediate. It is not like you get a set time period to pay it."

Yet experts warn that many companies continue to use the funds in regular operations or invest them in external opportunities.

"What happens when you lose it on the third party investment?" asks Mr Aka. "Well, the liability is still there, so you have to make it good somehow, and if you deploy it in your business and need to call on it when people leave then you have cash flow issues."

Employees who work at firms that fail financially and don't have reserves set aside for these benefits end up on a long list of creditors and therefore often have difficulty getting paid.

The International Labour Organization has said it regularly receives complaints from UAE workers who are having difficulty collecting the gratuity they say they are owed.

Some investment firms, including SEI, manage pension and retirement funds for companies at an arm's length to help prevent cash flow shortages when benefit payments are due. The Dubai Government has also recently been meeting with the World Bank on how to improve local employment laws and staff benefits.

One consideration includes wrapping the end-of-service benefit system into a pension scheme for foreign workers. Such a plan, however, would require a change in federal law.

Because many companies are still dealing with cash flow issues, though, they may think putting off the decision to place money aside is the best strategy for now.

But Mr Aka warns that cash flows may get only tighter in the future: "The exact reason they want to defer this is exactly why they should do it now," he says.