x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Call for 'three strikes and out' on UAE benefits for jobless who reject work

The unemployed should lose their benefits if they turn down three job offers, according to the head of an employment scheme run by the Ministry of Social Affairs.

DUBAI // The unemployed should lose their benefits if they turn down three job offers, according to the head of an employment scheme run by the Ministry of Social Affairs.

The Work is Life programme has met its targets in training unemployed Emiratis, but its head Mona Al Za'abi said progress was being blocked by the number of people who saw benefits as a inalienable right and who turn down repeated offers of work.

The federal programme has trained 300 Emiratis and provided vocational courses for a further 250, but has found jobs for only a few of the 15,000 who are on benefits but able to work.

Many will accept a job only if it is "prestigious", and routinely reject jobs with salaries up to Dh15,000 a month, Mrs Al Za'abi said.

"Much more needs to be done to shift these people from being dependent to active players in society."

The problem is particularly acute among women, who make up the majority of the 15,000.

"Their unwillingness derives from several reasons. There is a misconception of the value of work and a perception that benefits are a granted right that many see no reason to give up," said Mrs Al Za'abi.

"I have young women coming to me and saying, 'Give me a desk and computer and I will call this a job. I need prestige in a job otherwise I cannot accept it'.

"We found these women jobs as administrators in the metro section, in customer services, and jobs selling tickets in malls with salaries going up to Dh15,000 but they always come up with reasons not to accept them."

The programme tries to find women jobs in the emirate where they live to eliminate rejections on the ground that their families do not wish them to travel. However, sometimes women claim other social restrictions mean that jobs in malls and shift work are not suitable.

Mrs Al Za'abi said the success of the programme would continue to be compromised unless social benefits were suspended for anyone who rejected three suitable jobs.

"Suspending benefits would push people to be more active and not dependent. I personally think it is a good move and I know that there are reviews of social benefits laws but I am not sure if these changes are included. Maybe it is not a good move for the overall policy as there might be a bigger picture which I cannot see."

The programme has had some encouraging moments - such as a scheme to emiratise public school bus supervisor jobs by offering attractive salaries.

"The current salary of a bus supervisor is around Dh1,500. The idea was to offer Emirati women Dh6,000 plus benefits," said Mrs Al Za'abi. The programme attracted more than 100 applicants, but a Dh45 million deficit in the budget stopped it from going ahead.

Others blame the private sector for the low take-up of jobs.

Mariam Al Haj, a Work is Life supervisor, said the main hurdles facing Emiratisation were the low salaries of the private sector. "The programme has not yet reached its target and the main reason is the unwillingness of many employers to pay good salaries for Emiratis," she said.

"The lack of attractive salaries is the main reason for people in this category to reject a job. Many companies, especially those in the private sector, are not serious in their efforts to employ Emiratis."

The Work is Life programme has had some sucesses - among them Suhaila Saeed Abdullah, 25. Until two years ago Ms Abdullah was receving Dh4,400 on benefits and using it to support her parents and five siblings, as her father has been unemployed for as long as she can remember. Today she works as an administrator at the Ministry of Social Affairs, with a salary of Dh9,000 a month.

When she was contacted by the Work is Life project in May 2011 she didn't hesitate.

"When a day came when there were was no longer food at home and my younger siblings were sent to school without a penny, I realised that I had to find a job. The look of my mother in tears pushed me to it," she said.

Ms Abdullah doesn't mind that the job does not match her qualifications - she has a diploma in Business IT and is still studying part time for a degree in software engineering.

Apart from meeting her financial needs Ms Abdullah sees work and productivity as valuable in itself, and says it makes her feel empowered.

"I know that there are some who have diplomas and want to start on a managerial level, but I am different. Once again I say the journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step."

wissa@thenational.ae