Dubai: When it comes to supporting working mothers, companies in the UAE are still lagging behind those in other countries.
The duration of statutory paid maternity leave for employees in the country’s private sector lasts for 45 calendar days or about six weeks, while the other markets grant up to 24 or even more than 40 weeks of vacation, according to a consulting firm.
Maternity leave is believed to have a profound impact on women and babies, allowing new mums to breastfeed their newborn and recover physically and mentally from birth.
Medical experts agree that there’s indeed a need to review the paid maternity benefits for women in the UAE, because taking 45 days off from work is a bit short for mothers to recover from childbirth, as well as to bond with and care for their baby.
“I highly recommend that maternity leaves are extended more than the usual allowed time,” Dr Sausan Abdul Rahman, Obstetrics and Gynecology specialist at Burjeel Hospital Abu Dhabi, told Gulf News.
“Breastfeeding with shorter maternity leaves usually stops after one or two months. This has a very negative impact on the child’s health and development.”
According to Mercer’s 2014 Worldwide Benefits and Employment Guidelines, while most markets around the world have become more generous with leave allowances, a few countries, including the UAE, consistently rank among the lowest in paid maternity leave.
When it comes to the length of vacation offered to mums, Mercer said the UAE, as well as Hong Kong and Lebanon- both offering 10 weeks- and the United States (12 unpaid weeks) don’t fare favourably against many economies.
“Looking at just the statutory paid maternity leave, the UAE, Hong Kong and Lebanon are the least generous countries for pregnant women, followed by the United States,” Mercer said in its report.
In comparison, women in Norway enjoy 49 weeks, while those in Ireland are entitled to 26 weeks. Working women in Vietnam, Poland and Singapore are also entitled to a longer time off lasting for 24, 20 and 16 weeks respectively.
Mercer’s report offers an in-depth look at the various benefits that employees from 64 countries are entitled to, including statutory and typical benefits and employment conditions. The report, however, doesn’t provide a complete ranking of all countries in terms of the number of maternity leave benefits given to new mums.
“Obviously, the benefits contemplated in the UAE’s labour law is one of the lowest in the world, and very far away from those provided to mothers (or parents more generally) in other developed countries,” Nuno Gomes, principal in Mercer’s talent business based in Dubai, told Gulf News.
Gomes, however, pointed out that, unlike in the UAE, the maternity benefits in most countries are funded through governments and tax or social security funds.
“The existence of such mechanisms in the UAE limits the ability for government-funded benefits, and the full liability is on employers.”
“Having said that, there is a trend for employers to rethink the maternity benefits and start going above the statutory requirements, on their expense, and that you don’t see in other countries.”
Working mothers in the UAE said that women should be granted at least 90 paid leave days to be able to bond with and care for their newborn.
“I would personally think that three months is the bare minimum that should be given as paid maternity leave. I think it’s quite rare that a working mother would opt for the unpaid leave,” one expatriate told Gulf News earlier.
Rahman said that longer leave days are good for the health and development of infants, and wellbeing of working women. When mothers are given more time off from work, they can focus on breastfeeding their baby.
“The first and most important impact is breastfeeding which is the cornerstone of development for the infant. Breastfeeding is the ideal nutrition for the infant, easily digested, contains antibodies against viruses and bacteria.”
For mothers, longer periods of breastfeeding can help decrease weight after pregnancy, prevent ovarian and breast cancer and lower the risk of osteoporosis.
“They also have a better impact on mental and physical health, and better performance, especially after going back to work and a reduced rate of depressive symptoms that may follow delivery.”
Some human resources (HR) professionals, however, said that it may not be right to compare the UAE’s maternity leave policies with those of other countries.
“[It] is not quite like comparing apples to apples. Countries in which working women have several months of maternity leave are generally heavily taxed. The employer would not be solely responsible to bear the cost of the leave salary,” said Annalinde Nickisch, HR consultant at The Thought Factory.
In most countries, maternity pay is divided among the employer the government and the insurance company. This arrangement enables employers to manage maternity leave requirements without going through financial distress.
“In contrast, employers in the UAE are solely liable to pay the salary during the maternity leave of their employees,” noted Nickisch.
“If the leave period for mothers would significantly increase without regulating pay assistance through insurance companies [as an example], the financial impact of having to pay multiple months' salary without receiving actual work output would be severe,” she said.
Nickisch added that as a measure to reduce risk, the anticipated result of such a change in regulation would be a transformation in the hiring strategies of most organisations and "would consequently reduce the recruitment of young women into the workforce".
Below are infographics provided by Mercer. (Note: The maternity leave for UAE should read six weeks, not nine).