Women in the UAE are split over whether working mothers should receive a longer period of paid maternity leave, with some critics warning employees could abuse child-friendly policies.
Mothers-to-be in most Gulf countries are entitled to less than two months of paid leave after giving birth; significantly less than the minimum six month stretch offered in many Western states.
“Some people take it for granted,” said Nadia Al Khan, managing director of Dubai-based Unasco, on the sidelines of the Arabian Business Women’s Forum. “I have a mother working for me right now, she got six months, and now she’s asking for an extra two months.
“As a businessperson it is frustrating, being a woman I get frustrated. There should be a balance. You get what you have, and if you need more time, accept it without pay and then get back to work as a professional, regardless of your race or your gender.”
Under UAE law, women who have worked for a company for a year or more are entitled to 45 days maternity leave with full pay. Those who have worked for less than 12 months are entitled to the same period with half pay.
The issue was pushed into the limelight after a 2008 ruling slashed maternity leave entitlement by more than three months. The UAE had previously granted new mothers two months' full-paid leave, two months of half salary leave, and two months of unpaid leave.
Federal National Council member Amal Al Qubaisi has since called for the review of the new laws, arguing they discourage Emiratis from having children in a state that is already 80 percent expatriate.
Many mothers – both local and expat – agree that the new laws make women’s lives extremely difficult.
“I honestly think the 45 days for maternity is just not adequate,” said mother-of-four Ayesha Abdullah, managing director of the sciences cluster in Tecom Business Parks.
“A lot of career-orientated women are foregoing motherhood because there isn’t the flexibility. If you take time off work you lose your position. Women tend to be very grateful when companies give them a break.”
An expectant expatriate mother from the UK, who asked not to be named, said the laws put new mothers in a difficult position.
“As a British expat, if I was back home, I would have had six months to a year off, so 45 days is quite poor in comparison. Fortunately my employers are a bit better and give me longer,” she said.
“I can take up to three months, and then I’m on reduced hours when I go back for another three months. But I’m fortunate. I don’t know how women who have to go back after 45 days actually cope, in terms of having a new baby and being expected to go back and work full time hours.”
Lawyers say the regulation does provide some additional time-off for new mums, where women can prove they are suffering from an illness.
“Following the leave period an employee can take a hundred days of unpaid absence, if they can provide a medical certificate,” said Bronwyn Colgan a senior associate at Clyde and Co, specialising in employment law. “It doesn’t matter whether you have been there for a year or not in this case.”
Reports have suggested the UAE government could introduce legislation to extend parental leave, but no official ruling has been made.
In the meantime, some companies in the Gulf state have made efforts to provide nurseries close to offices, and offering flexible working hours to new mothers.
Tecom, which operates eleven free zones in Dubai, offers reduced hours to women who are breastfeeding and flexible working times. Women comprise some 70 percent of the company’s workforce.
“I know from my colleagues they face difficulties with not breast feeding. Psychologically, [she’s having problems], not just about this but about her husband but everything. If she had a nursery close, she could bring her maid [who could take the baby to the nursery],” said Maryam Althani, a projects engineering manager at Ducab.
“I am not married but I have been fighting for a nursery. Some local people are against this – it’s not the government, the government are launching initiatives to help women.”
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.