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UAE labour reforms include flexible employment options, but details remain unclear

On November 18, 2021

The UAE has announced a series of reforms to its labour law, including flexible employment options, prohibitions against employee harassment, discrimination, and forced labour, as well as equal pay for equal work, among a number of other issues. The amendments in Federal Decree Law No.33 of 2021 on the regulation of labour relations in the private sector will take effect from 2 February 2022.

The reforms introduce a new and explicit prohibition of “sexual harassment, bullying or any form of verbal, physical or psychological violence against a worker by the employer, his/her superiors at work or colleagues.” Previously, such acts were only prohibited under the penal code.

Domestic workers, who are likely most vulnerable to sexual and physical harassment, remain excluded from the labour law. Public sector workers also do not fall under the scope of this law.

The reforms also prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, and disability, with the exception of regulations that favour the employment of nationals.

The decree also introduces explicit prohibitions against forced labour into the labour law, which previously only existed in the Federal Law No. (51) on Combating Human Trafficking Crimes. Inclusion in the labour law may signal intent to concentrate efforts on combating forced labour. However, given that the UAE’s anti-trafficking enforcement currently focuses almost exclusively on sex trafficking, it more likely means that forced labour violations will continue to be treated as administrative labour law violations, instead of crimes under the anti-trafficking law.

Part-time, temporary, and “flexy” employment models

According to officials, the new employment arrangements include part-time work, temporary work, and “flexy work.” Provisions for part-time work have been included in the labour law since 2010, subject to a separate part-time work permit. Ministerial Decision No 31 of 2018 rendered part-time work more accessible for workers with certain skills qualifications. At this time, it remains unclear how the new provisions for part-time work will differ from existing regulations.

Details of the new temporary and flexible working arrangements -- which also currently exist in some form – are not yet available either.

In a public statement, Dr Abdulrahman Al Awar, Minister of Human Resources and Emiratisation, described two new working models: a “condensed” model whereby a 40-hour work week is completed in three days, and a “shared” model whereby a job and its remuneration is split by two people. It is unclear, though likely, if these options will be linked to workers’ skill-level and qualifications, as has been the case with similar regulations in the past. It is also not yet clear how these contracts will be monitored in national systems, including the Wage Protection System.

Similar flexible employment options were introduced during the Covid-19 pandemic. Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation officials pointed to the ‘post-pandemic’ business climate as a key motivation behind the reforms.

Officials say the reforms also make it easier for employers to hire workers who are already in the country and whose contracts have expired. However, it is not yet clear what exact mechanisms have been changed, as employers could previously hire workers with expired contracts until the validity of their visas expired.

It must be noted that a lot of the provisions mentioned are not new and are already in effect, even if implementation has been poor.

According to media reports, the amendments “allow employers to meet their labour requirements and benefit from their energies and productivity at the lowest operational cost through part-time work, temporary work and flexy work, as well as allow employers to hire those whose work contracts have expired, but who are still in the country, through easy and flexible procedures.” It is important to ensure the lowest operational costs do not come at the cost of low wages and exploitative work hours.

Flexibility should not result in precarity

It is unclear how flexible employment will be implemented in the UAE and how it will be linked to residency laws. The new Labour Law's Executive Regulations will determine the terms of part-time work and work permits, however, the Executive Regulations have yet to be released.

Even though the language of “flexibility” and “mobility” is regularly used to justify labour reforms, it is critical that flexibility does not translate into precarity. Measures that shift costs and responsibility onto workers must be resisted. The case of Bahrain’s Flexi-Permit exemplifies this problem: even though it grants full mobility to migrant workers, it has also subjected many migrants to vulnerable conditions.

Saudi Arabia recently included provisions for part-time work in its labour law; however, only Saudi nationals are permitted to work part-time. Bahrain has introduced the Flexi-Permit for migrant workers to work part-time and self-sponsor themselves.

Labour laws in the Gulf are, to some extent, limited in their ability to provide adequate protection to migrant workers because migrants' residency is tied to the employer. Migrant workers are often unable to access labour law provisions because their sponsors made their status irregular.

Questions remain

Advocates have long argued that greater employment mobility and flexibility not only protects the rights of workers, but fosters a more efficient business environment as well. However, as the executive regulations of the law have not yet been released, some key questions remain to be clarified:

  • What kind of labour contract will exist for part-time work?
  • What kind of wage breakdown would exist, and who takes care of accommodation and food which would previously have been paid by a single employer?
  • Do all employment models apply to both new recruits and workers already in the country?
  • Will these workers be included in the Wage Protection System?
  • Can workers be self-sponsored? Who will pay visa fees, insurance and health cover?
  • Are there exceptions based on skill-levels and/or category of workers?