The slow growth of the office nursery

Most government employers are failing to act on 2006 guidelines set by a federal cabinet.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES Ð Jan 19: Staff of the childcare care center with some of the kids at the childcare center in the Dubai Customs building in Dubai. (Pawan Singh / The National) For News. Story by Zoi Constantine *** Local Caption ***  PS1901- CHILDCARE11.jpg

DUBAI // Government offices are being urged by the Ministry of Social Affairs to comply with national guidelines to open on-site nurseries for the children of their employees. Only a handful of departments have opened the required childcare facilities since a federal cabinet decision outlining the provision of nurseries was issued in 2006, according to Amna al Dehail, the head of the ministry's childhood support and development section.

The decision instructed all departments at the federal and local level with more than 50 female employees or whose female staff members together have more than 20 children below the age of four to open nurseries on their premises. Yet only 17 government entities have so far established a nursery or are in the process of doing so, according to the ministry. One of the main reasons given by government bodies for not opening nurseries has been difficulties in finding appropriate locations with enough space.

At a conference earlier this month, Shamsa Saleh, the director of strategic planning and corporate development at the Dubai Women Establishment (DWE), warned that the nation was at risk of "losing our women leaders" because of the continued lack of childcare centres in most government offices. No time period was offered to carry out the directive, and no indication given that bodies which failed to comply would face any action or measures to enforce the ruling.

"It is easy to open a nursery," Ms al Dehail said. "There are just some necessary steps to make it ready and we are encouraging more government departments to get on board with this." The Prime Minister's Office, the Ministry of Culture, Dubai Water and Electricity Authority and Abu Dhabi Police are among the government organisations to have set up nurseries or are in the process of doing so. A spokesman confirmed that Abu Dhabi Municipality also is in the process of opening an on-site nursery at its headquarters.

The idea, said Ms al Dehail, is not only looking to place the children in "rooms", but to establish quality childcare facilities. The Ministry of Social Affairs, which is responsible for issuing licences for all public and private nurseries in the country, cannot enforce the 2006 decision. The role of the ministry, Ms al Dehail said, is to lobby for the establishment of nurseries and to support departments as they launch them.

However, the push to implement the cabinet decision appears to be gaining some momentum. The issue recently reached the Federal National Council, where it was raised by Dr Nedal al Tunaiji, a member from Ras al Khaimah. More than 160 requests have come into the ministry from departments looking for information and guidance on how to open an nursery, according to Ms al Dehail. The ministry has also received calls from employees inquiring about the initiative and calling for the 2006 plan to be implemented.

"They say that this is their right," Ms al Dehail said. The DWE has also been active on the issue, developing a set of standards to help government departments, including Dubai Customs, open nurseries. "One of the problems has been that the law was not communicated," said Mrs Saleh. "In the past the employees often didn't know that the law was there." The Dubai Customs model, she said, had proved that government nurseries resulted in more productivity and improved the performance of working mothers.

One government employee, Alia al Hashemi, 30, considered quitting her job with Dubai Municipality to be with her four children, aged three months to nine years. However, with the help of a nanny, she was able to remain in the workforce. "If there was a nursery at my work of course I would send them there if I found the training and the conditions to be right," she said. One of the first government nurseries to open was in the Ministry of Social Affair's offices in Dubai. In January 2009, the nursery began accepting the children of both male and female staff, as well as some children from the adjacent Ministry of Labour and the nearby Ministry of Public Works.

According to the cabinet decision, if a department does not have enough female staff members to require them to open a nursery, they can be accommodated at a facility in a government entity nearby. The Ministry of Presidential Affairs is constructing a specially designed nursery for the children of both male and female employees is scheduled to open later this year. Sultan al Hamiri, the ministry's director of support services, said the initiative has been identified as a priority by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, the Minister of Presidential Affairs.

"We believe it will help with the productivity of the employees and remove some of the worries and keep them focused," Mr al Hamiri said. "It will help a lot for them to be closer to their children and it is part of our responsibility to do this."