x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Limited protection for pregnant women against unfair dismissal

UAE law offers no specific protection to pregnant women in the workplace - meaning they can be fired simply for being with child.

DUBAI // Women have little protection under the labour law against being fired because they are pregnant, experts warn.

The law does mandate 45 days of maternity leave on full pay for women who have worked at a company for one year or longer. But experts, human resources managers and employees warn that companies often terminate the contracts of pregnant woman before they give birth because they cost the company money and are not protected under the law.

"There are only limited provisions in the labour law dealing with maternity leave and post-maternity illness," said Rebecca Ford, a partner at the law firm Al Tamimi and Company.

"However, there are no specific provisions protecting pregnant women prior to their maternity leave."

There are only 10 legal justifications for terminating someone's contract without notice under the labour law's Article 120. Pregnancy is not one of them, but experts say it is easy for employers to cite a legal reason, such as budget cuts or poor performance, when firing a pregnant woman.

The Dubai International Finance Centre free zone does offer protection to pregnant employees.

"The DIFC free zone [drafted in 2004] has its own employment law, which does actually contain some specific provisions," Ms Ford said. "In summary, it says that an employer shall not, because of an employee's pregnancy or maternity, terminate employment or change the position or terms of employment.

Elsewhere, however, a woman who was fired while pregnant could raise a complaint of wrongful dismissal. But she would then have to prove the termination of her contract was arbitrary.

"If a woman feels she has been dismissed just because she's pregnant, it would be open for her - as it would be for any other employee that has been dismissed unfairly - to bring a claim for arbitrary dismissal compensation," she said.

If the issue is not settled to the employee's satisfaction, she can file a complaint with the Ministry of Labour.

NF, a 31-year-old from Tanzania, said she lost her job five months into her pregnancy. Her company said her contract was terminated because of company restructuring. "To an extent there is a sense of insecurity, but I was in a delicate condition and did not want to get depressed," said NF, who had worked with the IT company for four years.

"So I decided to look at it in a positive way as I was planning to go on a long break after delivery."

A paramedic whose job involved flying was fired three months into her pregnancy.

"I told my company that I was pregnant, and the next week I was fired," said the 31-year-old Italian. "We discussed this before, and because my job is a little dangerous, they said not to worry and that I would be relocated, but that didn't happen."

An HR officer who works at a construction company said pregnancy was a factor in hiring and firing.

"We had three cases in our company. One of the cases was a colleague who was six months pregnant," she said. "The manager seemed uncomfortable with her leaving with this much workload, so he did not wait for her to go on maternity leave, but terminated her employment on the spot."

Meanwhile, a job candidate "had the perfect qualifications, perfect experience and was perfect for the position, but because she was pregnant she was not accepted", she added.

An ambiguity in the law allows employers to dictate hiring terms, which can include pregnancy, experts said.

"The employer could list as one of his employment conditions that an employee should not be pregnant prior to acceptance," said Eman Al Rifai, advocate at Ja'Afar Alwan, Al Jaziri and Associates. "But he cannot terminate her employment if she did get pregnant afterwards, as this is a right from God."

aalhaddad@thenational.ae