The UAE authorities announced late last year that in Federal Government departments from 1 January 2022 the working week would be reduced to four and a half days, with the weekend running from Friday afternoon to Sunday night. The authorities also confirmed that all schools and universities would operate from Monday to Friday on the same four and a half day basis.
Does this change extend to the private sector?
Officially, no. For the time being at least, private sector employers are not obliged to change their working patterns. Interestingly, this announcement for the public sector followed shortly after the enactment of the Federal Decree Law No. 33 of 2021 (the New Labour Law) which came into force last month. The New Labour Law no longer expressly specifies Friday as the weekly rest day for employees and therefore private sector employers do now have the flexibility to effect changes to work patterns as needed. In light of this and given operational hours for schools, universities and the courts are now restricted to Monday to Friday (and no longer Sunday), we have already seen a significant number of private sector employers take steps to align their weekly work schedule to the public sector.
However, in the absence of a formal ruling or circular by the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation, we have not seen and do not envisage many private sector employers implementing a four and a half day working week in practice (and certainly not until a corresponding reduction in salary has first been agreed to with the employees). With the increased flexibility introduced under the New Labour Law, which acknowledges flexible worker roles, and trends we have seen so far, our view is that the majority of employers will shift towards a full five day Monday to Friday working week but with scope for employees who wish to attend Friday congregational prayers to work from home, remotely or be provided with an extended unpaid break to attend prayers. Of course, employees who have been able or obliged to work from home during the pandemic have probably already been adjusting their hours and maybe even days to suit their personal needs without the employer necessarily being aware of this, and to that extent the New Labour Law is potentially doing little more than recognising the inevitable anyway.
We have produced a helpful summary of the New Labour Law which can be accessed here.
What steps should employers be taking?
- There are no actions for those employers which do not wish to change or reduce their working week (as there is no corresponding legal obligation to do so). However, for those employers which do (and we anticipate this will be the majority of companies in the private sector), the following should be considered:
- Changes to the weekly work pattern are likely to constitute a change to the employee’s terms and conditions of employment and so would need to be agreed with the employee. This may require amendments to individual employment contracts / company policies to ensure employees’ respective working hours/work patterns are accurately reflected. In the UAE, the general principle is that changes to the employment contract must be agreed between an employer and each affected employee and confirmed in writing.
- Whilst there is no strict obligation to consult with employees prior to introducing a contractual change, it may be prudent to consult from an employee relations perspective (usually over a one to two week period), so long as this is seen to be a genuine exercise and not conducted as a cosmetic charade to cover up a decision already made. Consultation should be considered both at a collective and individual level, i.e. both in relation to the proposed overall changes to terms and conditions and separately the impact of those changes upon individuals.
- We would also flag that under the New Labour Law, it is prohibited to discriminate against an individual on the basis of religion and gender (amongst a number of other protected characteristics). Employers will therefore need to be mindful of this when considering remote working, changes to working hours which may clash with childcare commitments and/or extended rest break requests for Muslim employees who need to attend congregational prayers on a Friday (particularly in light of general public policy towards the importance of Friday prayers). Employers will also need to give consideration to requests from employees who need to work remotely to facilitate travel from schools, as the school day has been a half-day only on Friday as of January.
- If an employee refuses to agree to a change to working hours and/or adjustments to the weekly work schedule, the employer will need to consider whether it is appropriate to terminate the employment relationship and also whether that refusal amounts to a “legitimate reason” for doing so under the New Labour Law). The factors affecting the validity of a termination under the New Labour Law are somewhat grey at the moment due to its novelty and the consequent lack of precedent from the courts. However, it would seem counter-productive to amend the legislation to permit employers that extra flexibility but then effectively deny them the right to use it by preventing the termination of those who object. In the circumstances it does not seem too much a stretch to suggest that the employer’s position in that respect will be strengthened if it can show good commercial reasons for making the change to terms, ideally some prior consultation with affected staff, open-minded consideration of any representations made in response, and perhaps also that the majority of its employees have been supportive of the change.
How we can help
Please get in touch with me or any other member of our UAE L&E team if you have any questions around how best to approach a shift towards a Monday-Friday working week from either the employee relations and/or logistical perspectives. We are on hand to assist with reviewing your existing employment agreements and HR policies to accommodate any proposed changes to weekly working patterns and would also be happy to discuss further your wider obligations under the New Labour Law.