x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Maternity laws 'drive women out of work'

Officials are trying to figure out how to keep women in the workforce.

Inadequate maternity laws are forcing women out of the workforce, experts warn.

The number of females in the labour market in the UAE is among the lowest in the world - it ranks 125th out of 139 countries in a report by the World Economic Forum - and many argue that this is in part because women are driven out of employment by discriminatory maternity laws.

Not only are new mothers given too little maternity leave, they say, but when they do go back to work they are not given sufficient allowance for such activities as breastfeeding.

Some employers, meanwhile, discourage would-be employees from applying for jobs if they plan to get married or pregnant - despite this being against the law.

Mohamed Mubarak, a law researcher in the office of labour relations at the Ministry of Labour, said that if companies provided women only the minimum benefits required by law, many would leave the labour market.

The law stipulates 45 days of maternity leave for new mothers working in the private sector. If the woman has been with her company for at least a year, she should receive full pay during that period. If she has not completed a year, she is entitled to half.

"If they need more maternity leave, companies should give them more time," said Mr Mubarak yesterday on the sidelines of a labour laws workshop in the capital. "In reality, the government sector has realised this, but the problem comes from the private sector."

Dr Gowri Ramanathan, a gynaecologist at Abu Dhabi's Corniche Hospital, said 45 days was not enough - and fell below international standards.

"In the UK you get three months of paid maternity, two for half, and potentially you can take six months unpaid leave," she said. "Here it is only six weeks, which makes holding a career difficult for women."

She said there should be a minimum of three months maternity leave. "It takes three to four weeks for the body to get back to the pre-pregnancy state," she said. "And caesarean sections take even longer to recover from."

Dr Ramanathan added that while the law mandated a 30-minute breastfeeding break twice a day during working hours for mothers who had given birth within the last 18 months, that was not always adequate.

"Especially in the medical field, you don't ever get that time off, you get stuck with something," she said.

Klaithem Al Darmaki, an Emirati private-sector employee, said that 30 minutes was not enough "even for the drive home".

"And it's so difficult to breastfeed in the beginning, it is not like the baby will start feeding straight away, it takes time," she said. "You might have a schedule, but the baby does not."

As a result, Mrs Al Darmaki said, many new mothers decided not to continue working.

Other women are discouraged from the workplace by companies who say they will not be allowed to work for them if they plan to get married or pregnant - despite Mr Mubarak saying this was against the law.

"No one can tell a women to not get married, or not to get pregnant," he said. "Some women after seven months of pregnancy cannot continue, and sometimes they want to go and give birth in their home country. And if the manager knows that she cannot work for the next two months, he may want to end her contract. But then we would consider it as an arbitrary dismissal, which means that she gets three months' salary as compensation."

He said in such cases, women were entitled to full benefits.

"Women have been given the opportunity to work, to have a place in the Government, to represent the country internationally," he said. "We should not, after all the education and graduation, end it all."

osalem@thenational.ae