On 29 September 2016, it was reported that the UAE President and ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nayan, has decreed that maternity leave for government employees in the emirate of Abu Dhabi will increase by one month to provide three months' leave at full pay.

In addition, it was reported that paternity leave has increased to three days and female employees nursing their babies shall be entitled to two hours additional break each day for a period of one year. It is understood that guidance has also been established to provide flexible working platforms. This news leads what appears to be a series of updates to UAE employment laws aimed to improve, among other things, conditions for working mothers.

Earlier in the year a committee, established at the direction of Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, Chairwoman of the General Women’s Union, Supreme Chairwoman of the Family Development Foundation and President of the Supreme Council for Motherhood and Childhood, was launched in the UAE to review the existing maternity laws.

This has come as a most welcome development to many working mothers in the UAE who will feel that the government is looking at ways to support and empower them. The role of the working mother and difficulties of balancing motherhood with the stresses of the modern day workplace is of increasing concern. Working mothers see this development as a positive indication by the government that their contribution to the economic success of the region is recognised by the highest authorities.

Current UAE Maternity Benefits

Maternity rights in the UAE currently differ considerably depending on the jurisdiction governing the relevant employment contract. The UAE Federal Law No. 8 of 1980 (as amended) (the "UAE Labour Law") governs the maternity rights of the majority of employees. Employees based in the Dubai International Financial Centre ("DIFC") and the Abu Dhabi Global Market ("ADGM") benefit from more generous maternity provisions, as both DIFC and ADGM have independent employment regulations which came into force much later in the history of the UAE's legal framework.

Some of the key maternity and paternity leave provisions to note are as follows:

Under the UAE Labour Law:

  • A female employee who has been employed by the same employer for more than one year on commencement of her maternity leave is entitled to full pay for 45 days. An employee who has been employed for less time is entitled to receive half of her salary for 45 days.
  • During the 18 months following delivery, a female employee nursing her child shall, in addition to any prescribed rest period, be entitled to two additional breaks each day to support this. These breaks are currently restricted to 30 minutes each.

Under the DIFC regulations:

  • An employer is required to pay maternity leave pay at the employee’s normal daily wage for the first 33 working days of maternity leave and at 50 per cent of the employee’s normal daily wage for the next 32 working days of maternity leave.
  • An employee cannot receive compensation in lieu of maternity leave.
  • Any national holidays falling on a working day within the maternity leave period shall be treated as additional leave, thereby extending the maternity leave by the period of the national holiday.

A female employee working for a DIFC-based company also receives certain 'back to work' protections, which include:

  • A right not to be terminated due to pregnancy or maternity leave.
  • A right not to have her position or condition of employment changed unless the employee has given express written consent.
  • A right to return to the same role or a suitable alternative role on the same terms and conditions and with the same seniority rights she would have had, had she not taken maternity leave.

Under the ADGM regulations:

The abovementioned DIFC regulations are mirrored with respect to maternity leave in the ADGM. In addition:

  • An employee who becomes a father to a newly-born child shall be entitled to a minimum paternity leave entitlement of five business days, to be taken within two months of the date of birth of the child.
  • During the employee's minimum paternity leave, the employer shall pay paternity pay at the employee's normal daily wage.
  • The employee cannot receive compensation in lieu of paternity leave.
  • Any national holidays falling on a business day within the paternity leave period shall be treated as additional leave, thereby extending the paternity leave by the period of the national holiday.

Both male and female employees working in ADGM receive back to work protections which reflect those granted in DIFC, i.e.:

  • An employer shall not, because of an employee's pregnancy, maternity leave or paternity leave, (a) terminate the employment; or (b) change the position or condition of employment without the employee's prior written consent.
  • An employee has the right to return to work at the end of maternity/paternity leave granted in the same role or a suitable alternative on the same terms and conditions, and with same seniority rights he/she would have had, had he/she not taken maternity leave.

Employers taking the lead

Some notable UAE employers have already begun positively changing their policies to benefit working parents and encourage more women to return to the workplace. In 2015, the Dubai office of Bloomberg LLP upgraded its UAE maternity policy offering mothers 18 weeks fully paid maternity leave and fathers four weeks fully paid paternity leave.

A wide variety of sources globally (including Forbes, Fortune and McKinsey) seem to unanimously agree that companies who put the needs of their employees first have greater brand value and profitability. Any boost to employee benefits through local legislation therefore looks to benefit both employers and employees across the UAE.

What does this mean for employers?

Whereas the recent announcement boosting maternity leave affects government employees in the emirate of Abu Dhabi only, there are indicators that federal employment regulations are under review and that women in leadership roles are a priority. Employers should keep up to date with changes to the relevant employment frameworks in order to ensure that their HR policies and employment contracts remain compliant.

Top tips for UAE employers to ensure their policies are up to date:

  • Appoint a member of HR to 'be on alert' for announcements relating to UAE legislative updates.
  • Request your legal counsel to provide you with training and updates to you on a regular basis.
  • Ask your HR team or legal counsel to perform an annual health check on existing policies.