Navigating labour disputes in the UAE

A discussion of how to resolve labour disputes using the UAE's legal system.

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Have a labour dispute? Many assume the first move is to head to court.

But lawyers who handle hundreds of such cases, over issues ranging from hours to benefits to salary, say that is not the case. Before the Labour Court will accept a filing, workers must first try to resolve the issue directly with their employer, then turn to the Ministry of Labour.

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Only after the ministry has failed to negotiate an agreement can a lawsuit be filed, said Mohammed Al Saadi, a lawyer in Dubai.

He laid out an example: an employee who has been sacked from his job or submitted his resignation discovers his employer has watered down all his end-of-service benefits.

"The private sector employee in this case has to try and reconcile with his employer before he seeks the help of the legal system," he said.

"Only when all amicable methods have been used by the employee to try and obtain his benefits from his employer should he seek the help of the Ministry of Labour."

At that point, the ministry will attempt to settle the dispute. If that fails, the ministry is legally obliged to refer the matter to court.

These are crucial steps, he said, and failing to follow them can derail a case before it starts.

And there are variations.

A public employee for the Government of Dubai must file his complaint at the office of the Ruler of Dubai, which will attempt to find an agreement between the two parties. If it fails, it will issue the employee a letter addressed to the Dubai courts regarding the complaints.

Federal employees can file their cases at the relevant Dubai court, Mr Al Saadi said.

According to the Dubai Labour Court, 5,822 labour cases were heard in the emirate last year, compared with 5,138 in 2009. The Abu Dhabi Labour Court, meanwhile, has heard 1,461 cases so far this year, compared with 882 in the same period of last year.

One of the most common types of cases heard is that in which a worker has resigned because he was not paid for months - a situation allowing him to switch jobs without penalty under federal law - and had not received benefits after resigning, according to Khalid Said, a lawyer in Abu Dhabi.

Mr Said said he had a client in the midst of such a case that had been ruled in his favour but was being appealed by the former employer.

Dr Ibrahim al Mulla Advocates and Legal Consultants often sees its benefits cases taken to court, according to lawyers there.

Ma'moon Al Ibrahim, a legal researcher at the office, cited the case of a Malaysian man who had worked for a contracting company with a monthly salary of Dh28,000. He was suspended abruptly last year after working for 18 months.

"They did not pay him any of his benefits - only the last month's salary," Mr Al Ibrahim said. "The Labour Court of First Instance ruled he should get Dh27,750. Which is obviously an incorrect amount, because his salary alone was Dh28,000."

The man's lawyers said he was owed about Dh300,000, the total of his end-of-service benefits, overtime, and compensation for annual leave and arbitrary dismissal.

The appeals court ruled he should be paid about Dh121,000. His company appealed the judgment to the Court of Cassation, but their argument was rejected.

"Usually companies keep fighting until the last minute because they want to avoid paying as much as they can," Mr Al Ibrahim said.

If a company does not abide by the court's verdict, the court takes immediate action by freezing assets, he added.

"Labour cases are dealt with promptly, because they consider the worker's circumstances," he said.