x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Drama and dramatic reforms play out in the labour courts

Cases that make it to labour courts often have nothing to do with business affairs and are more about personal revenge.

Family law courts may hear the heartbreaking stories, but labour courtrooms are where the real-life vendettas play out. Conflicts between employers and employees are quite common, and by the time a case reaches the courts, it has already passed the point of friendly reconciliation.

Labour trials are not always caused by legitimate issues like the non-payment of salaries or arbitrary dismissal. Personal differences and adversarial attitudes can also play a role in these courtroom dramas.

In one case that I handled, an employee filed a complaint against his employer demanding two months of unpaid salary and an end of service gratuity, which in total did not amount to much. But when the supposedly naive employee hired a lawyer and eventually won the case, the employer was so angry that he used every possible grievance and petition available under the law to challenge the judgment and delay execution. The case made it all the way to the Court of Cassation, costing the employer more in legal fees than it was worth. At one point in the interminable case, the judge became infuriated by the employer's tactics and ordered him to pay a fine for delaying proceedings.

Many lawyers complain about the long roll calls in labour court hearings, the overcrowded rooms and the lengthy testimonials, especially those involving translators, but I find them intriguing and dynamic. Many parties are unaccompanied by counsel, so they tell their stories in their own words. The number of files stacked before the court clerk may look intimidating, but the interaction between the judges and parties involved can make the experience rewarding.

It is well known that the UAE has one of the most challenging environments for labour law. Workers come from all over the world, with many different languages and backgrounds. The UAE Labour Law No 8 of 1980 applies to every employee in every emirate with the exceptions of the Federal Government, armed forces, police and security units, agricultural workers and domestic workers. And of course, the issues that it deals with are manifold.

Like many labour laws worldwide, there are provisions that govern wages, working conditions and job security but not areas like unions, employee discrimination or redundancies. The current law has been updated by government decree many times, but there are still obvious shortcomings. For example, the differences between categories of employees are not defined and termination needs an in-depth definition. There should also be built-in safeguards, such as mandatory Ministry of Labour inquiries in cases of disputed termination.

The most important safeguard would require that all employees are provided with a booklet detailing labour laws. How many employees get in trouble simply because they don't know their rights?

It is only fair to say that the government has already introduced new measures and legislation to improve the labour environment. Employers are already prohibited from forcing employees to work outside during the midday break in the summer. One of the announced measures that unfortunately has not been implemented is the appointment of a labour relations officer in the Dubai courts to ensure that employees are paid directly into their bank accounts. That measure could save a lot of time and effort by resolving cases before they arrive in court.

The latest news is a major initiative by the Ministry of Labour that allows employees to switch jobs after their contracts expire. I believe the new rule improves the labour environment by waiving the requirement for employer consent and a mandatory six-month waiting period. Those have been the ingredients for labour law nightmares for many employees.

These measures constitute key elements of labour reform that, hopefully, will be complemented by further amendments to the existing legislation. These should play a major role in efforts towards creating an efficient labour market in the UAE economy.

It may not be necessary to completely overhaul the existing legislation, but both employers and employees should be consulted about amendments to the law. Questionnaires and human resources meetings could bring workers' issues to light. In the absence of organised labour representative bodies - which is fortunate, given the adverse economic impacts on other economies during strikes - authorities have a special role here. Workers' rights are a top priority of authorities and I believe we are progressing steadily towards a labour law that conforms to international standards and best practices.

Still, in many cases you might have a conflict with your employer but it's not worth dragging it through the courts. Perhaps a bit of discreet revenge is in order. When a colleague and I had a problem with our boss at a former workplace, we followed the advice of Lucy Kellaway, a columnist for the Financial Times who focuses on workplace and employment issues. Her solution? Stare straight at your boss while holding a fork in front of your eyes so the tines look like prison bars. Sometimes just the thought of your boss in a jail cell is enough to get you through the day.


Diana Hamade is an Emirati lawyer and legal consultant. She is the founder of International Advocate Legal Services in Dubai