Job advertisement prompts debate about unpaid internships in UAE

There may be nothing illegal about work experience without compensation, but ethical concerns abound

A screen grab of the internship posting on Gulf Talent. 
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

A listing on a popular regional job site has prompted debate over the legality and ethics of unpaid internships in the UAE.

The anonymous advertisement was published to GulfTalent last month by a "British company with an expanding office in Dubai."

It offered two potential posts – a customer service position and a human resources role – as internships lasting between three and six months.

Successful candidates were expected to work 9am to 6pm from Sunday to Thursday in the company's Jumeirah Lakes Towers office, without pay.

The post said the "executive-level recruitment company, which specialises in placing management-level professionals in roles across the Middle East", would not provide successful candidates an employment or residency visa for the duration of the ­internship.

As compensation, the company offered to "help rewrite" the successful candidates' CVs after three months to give them "the best chance" of securing a full-time job in Dubai.

A balance must exist which encourages companies to take on internships but also ensures that the individuals are not exploited or taken advantage of.

The advertisement said previous interns had secured permanent roles in the UAE as a result of the experience.

Claire Granger, a senior partner at a law firm in Dubai, said that while the advertisement was not illegal, it was unethical.

“It is disappointing that employers are seeking to take advantage of individuals unaware of the laws and seeking work experience or perhaps hoping an internship will lead to a fully paid position,” said Ms Grainger, of Naji Beidoun Advocates & Legal Consultants.

According to federal law, all positions of employment in the UAE require a work permit from the Department of Labour. UAE residents can take on internships without an employment visa but still require a work permit.

"If a non-resident intern does not have a mission visa it is illegal for them to work in the UAE on a visit or tourist visa, and both the individual and employer may be fined or even deported," Ms Grainger said.

Companies caught employing illegal workers can face a fine of Dh50,000 per worker for the first offence, and Dh100,000 per worker for a second offence. Regulations and visa requirements also depend on whether the company is in a free zone or not.

"The company in the job posting says it's based in JLT under the DMCC [Dubai Multi Commodities Centre] free zone, which offers two intern-friendly work permits that are available to individuals on a student visa or already on a company visa," Ms Grainger said.

A survey conducted by Oliv, a Dubai technology company that runs an employment platform for young people, and, a UAE e-commerce platform, this year found that 70 per cent of 452 graduates polled had completed some form of work experience, of which almost a third – 27 per cent – was unpaid. The figures are an improvement on last year, when the survey found that four in 10 internships or work placements were unpaid.

Natalie, a Dubai resident from the UK, has completed several unpaid internships in the emirate. She said that while work experience was often a great way to train, it rarely led to anything tangible. "Where do you draw the line with interning? I have many friends who intern, yet receive no valid compensation or prospects for a full-time job afterwards," she said.

"You may spend months working for a company, getting trained in their work style, and then have to cut short this working experience and find another internship or job, which is tough. It seems as though employers do not value us interns as much as we value working for them."  

Jonathon Davidson, founding partner of Davidson & Co Legal Consultants, said companies that offer internships are typically looking for UAE students sponsored by their parents.

“Usually one would not expect an internship to exceed a few months and thereafter it is usual that the individual might return to college to complete his or her studies or proceed to a better paid job either within the same company or elsewhere,” Mr Davidson said.

He said a fair wage for internships was a subjective issue. “Many people are prepared to work for a very low salary for a period of time to learn key skills and to encourage an employer to take them on a better-paid basis after what they hope to be a relatively short period of time.”