x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Legal guarantees for pregnant staff

A pregnant woman, but not a new mother, can be fired. The law should be changed, but employers should learn how to help workers balance jobs and private life.

There is a curious loophole in UAE labour law. A woman is entitled to 45 days of paid maternity leave after she has a baby - but while she is still pregnant, an employer can sack her with impunity. Some companies may be tempted to take advantage of this opportunity, if only because once the baby is born, the maternity leave at full pay comes at an obvious cost to the employer.

As The National reports today, it is not possible within the letter of the law to dismiss an employee for pregnancy. But it happens all the same, with a variety of reasons offered, often transparently spurious.

Around the world, countries have made job security during pregnancy a pillar of their workplace-equity programmes. A streamlined complaint procedure and stiff penalties for employers who attempt to punish pregnant women with dismissal would send a clear signal that society does not treat fertility as an offence.

Like other aspects of women's equality, however, protection of workplace security for pregnant women is desirable in itself. In an ideal world more UAE employers would see the wisdom of fair treatment with no need for legislation and enforcement.

Around the world, work and personal life are no longer seen as polar opposites. As women have joined the workforce, the cluster of issues known as "work-life balance" has been studied carefully in many countries, and the conclusions are clear: workers are more productive, satisfied and loyal when employers design and follow flexible policies. The guiding idea is to allow each individual to balance the varied demands of private life with those of the workplace.

And what could be more central to private life than having a child? Many women feel that 45 days is not enough; employers in some countries agree to longer leaves, on half pay or without pay but protecting the woman's employment. After that, part-time working or telecommuting may be accepted as well.

All of these provisions, and others, have come into being in other countries not necessarily by the force of the law but because companies saw that their interests were served by retaining skilled employees who happened to have become mothers.

It's a lesson more employers should be learning - if they do not, they should feel the force of the law.