Shaking up the system

Are UAE employment reforms a flutter or a full-on quake?

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Until recently, thelabor laws of the United Arab Emirates seemed as stationary as the tectonicplates under the Arabian Gulf. Those plates seldom shift, but when they do the result is earth shattering.

The new laborregulations in the UAE may not be as dramatic, but they do have the potentialto shake up the country’s antiquated employment market.

The regulations came inlate December in the form of a ministerial decree, an edict from the laborministry that is not actually a piece of legislation. As Executive went topress, an official document had not been posted by the labor ministry, but theminister of labor had made radio and press announcements.

Perhaps the mostsignificant reform is that workers looking to change jobs will no longer need a“no-objection certificate” (NOC) from their former employer, without whichworkers were previously barred from taking up new employment for a ‘coolingoff’ period of six months.

But this regulation doesnot apply equally to all; a classification system has been put in place tocategorize workers according to their qualifications. Those with universitydegrees or a management position can move to new jobs without the NOC, buteveryone else must remain in their jobs for two years (as opposed to theprevious three-year validity of labor cards) before they may change theiremployer.

The measure to reducethe duration of labor cards to two years is expected to save private sectoremployers $184 million in costs incurred by the defaulted contracts of the 70percent of employees that left before the three-year period. According to arecent poll of workers in the UAE by, a recruitment and job researchcompany, 24 percent of workers stay in their position for a period of two yearsand only 21 percent stay for all three.  

“The recent UAE Ministryof Labor announcements are set to give more freedom to employees to switch jobswithout the previously… imposed six months ban and the required no-objectionletters from employers,” said Amer Zureikat, vice president of sales “We see this as an attempt to not only attract more talent to thecountry but also to promote flexibility and transparency at the workplace —which was deemed ‘very’ important by 72 percent of UAE participants in a poll.”

Local jobs for localpeople

That added flexibilitymight well be stymied, however, by the inclusion of another regulation in thereforms that seeks to increase the level of UAE nationals in the private sectorto 15 percent. Currently the private sector workforce is less than 1 percentEmirati, with most locals preferring to be employed in the public sector, whichin 2008 saw a low of 54.5 percent of employees being Emirati, reaching to 60.9percent in April 2010, according to recently released official figures. It hadbeen reported that the 15 percent target was to be hit by July, but officialsfrom the International Labor Organization (ILO) told Executive this was not thecase.

Other reforms includelowering the minimum working age to 16, while imposing tough regulations onwhich type of work can be practiced by minors. Expats are also now allowed toofficially take on a second part-time job or part-time work, which applies topeople with spouse visas as well. Six-month work visas are also to become parfor the course.

While the internationallabor community has lauded these measures, the UAE still has much more to do tofall in line with international standards. According to the ILO, the countrystill does not have any legal representation in the form of unions orcollectives, and these regulations are not expected to cover the tens ofthousands of workers in the free zones.

UAE labor law alsoleaves out domestic labor, which therefore excludes an estimated 300,000 to500,000 domestic workers.

If these issues, alongwith the kafeel, or guarantor, system are reformed in the future, perhaps thenthe changes really could be viewed as a tectonic shift in policy as opposed toan aftershock from the financial crisis.  



Sami Halabi

Sami Halabi is the director of knowledge and co-founder of Triangle, a development, policy, and media consulting firm. He is also the former managing editor of Executive Magazine.