x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Motherhood merits stronger protection

Companies in the UAE continue to circumvent the law when it comes to maternity leave.

Tanita Cain was nearly 35 weeks pregnant when her employer made her redundant in July 2010. The Dubai-based company cancelled her visa and health insurance rather than wait until the baby was born and grant her the mandatory 45-day maternity leave. As a result, she had to travel back to her native Australia while she was 36 weeks pregnant to give birth because she had lost her health insurance.

It's an example of a common practice to avoid giving maternity leave to female employees. Another standard practice is to tell women not to get pregnant while they are working. Many companies also fail to provide day-care facilities, or areas where mothers can breast feed.

As The National reported yesterday, a legal expert at the Ministry of Labour has acknowledged that maternity leave can be inadequate, particularly in the private sector. It is a beginning at least that maternity leave is being recognised as a priority at the ministerial level.

"If [women] need more maternity leave, companies should give them more time," said Mohamed Mubarak, a legal researcher at the ministry. "In reality, the government sector has realised this, but the problem comes from the private sector."

There is a general lack of awareness of legal rights, which helps companies circumvent the law. Other than morality, what prevents a company from sacking a woman while she is pregnant to avoid paying her salary while she is absent? Hardly anything. By law, companies can sack expatriate employees without giving a reason.

Companies also have various ways of circumventing the law, as The National reports. They may issue two employment contracts, one in compliance with the ministry's guidelines and another according to the company's own internal rules. An employee who needs a job has little choice if her employer asks her to sign a statement that she will not get pregnant. This is common, for example, in cafes where a woman is supposed to be "in shape" while serving customers.

The mandated maternity leave can be inadequate, illicit practices that circumvent the law persist, and there is an overall lack of enforcement mechanisms and awareness about legal rights. The ministry's acknowledgement of the issue hopefully means steps will be taken to reform maternity leave to the benefit of women and families.