The UAE 6 month labor ban needs to change. Now.
The UAE needs to deliver on its promises of matching international labor practices, if not for humane reasons then for the health and benefit of its own economy.
September 9, 2012 6:19 by Eva Fernandes
Could you be both angered and amused at the same time? If you live in the UAE, then you probably know this dual-state of emotion all too often.
Reading about a sponsorship case within the Emirates evoked these two very emotions within me earlier today. The article, titled ‘Six-month work ban applies evenly to men and women‘ chronicled the miserable case of a woman who had a six month ban imposed by the Ministry of Labor on account of failing to complete her period of employment with her former employer despite being on her husband’s sponsorship. The six month ban is an ugly loophole of contractual obligation and is the reason most women chose not to go on to the sponsorship of their employer if they can avoid it. Given that this woman was given a six month ban in spite of being on her husband’s sponsorship, well that just is disappointing. Now here’s the kicker: the lady lodged a complaint with the Ministry, but officials took almost six months to respond! Now if that isn’t a testament to the efficiency of the Ministry of Labor, well I don’t really know what is.
Jokes aside, the outcome of this lady’s case sets an alarming precedent for labor practices in the UAE. Commenting on this case, an official from the Ministry of Labor said failure to complete the two year period of employment stipulated by the employee’s contract was likely to result in a ban even if the employee was on her husband’s or father’s sponsorship. The ban will take affect from the moment the employee cancels her labor card and will be an issue if she attempts to apply for a new labor card should she join another company. Of course, if one begins an argument of how unfair policy this is, then the entire system of sponsorship must come under the magnifying glass.
The Kafala or sponsorship system has long created an unequal power relationship between employees and their employers. As expatriates cannot become citizens of the UAE or any other Gulf countries, they must be sponsored by a ‘Kafeel’—a sponsor, usual an employer. If an employee is dismissed, he will have to leave the country or find another kafeel to sponsor him. Women and male children under the age of 18 can be sponsored by their family members, but are subject to the similar conditions if their family member loses his sponsorship. The kafala system gives the employer an unfair advantage over their staff and it isn’t rare for employer’s to keep employee’s passports as collateral and leverage. The UAE government, for its part, has made significant leeway in leveling the playing field-last year they reduced the contractual limit of employment from three years to two for visas.
But it isn’t enough. This system of sponsorship is primitive and harmful. Harmful not just for the stress levels of its majority expatriate labor force but also for the country’s economy. Penalizing employees for pursuing better career options will serve as a limitation not just for that person, but for the productivity of the economy at large. Perhaps letting the forces of a free market apply to the labor market too, is too much too soon; moderation may be the key. Slowly and gradually, but definitely, the UAE needs to deliver on its promises of matching international labor practices, if not for humane reasons then for the health and benefit of its own economy.