'You really feel relaxed when you know your baby is here'

Dubai Customs is one of the few government departments to set up a creche which, it says, has helped reduce absenteeism and enhance productivity.

DUBAI // Shamsa al Falasi cradled her one-and-half-year-old son Mohammed in her arms as she took the opportunity to play with him briefly during the middle of her working day. Nearby, three babies lay quietly in their bassinets, while a toddler took a few cautious steps as the nursery staff kept a watchful eye. Mrs al Falasi, 27, did not have to leave her workplace to quickly check on her son. All she had to do was venture downstairs at Dubai Customs, where an on-site nursery for the children of female staff members has been operating since last April.

"You really feel relaxed when you know your baby is here; you don't worry because there are a lot of local ladies around looking after them and you trust them," she said. Until two months ago, her son had been looked after by a nanny at home. "Here he gets some social habits and is playing with the other children," she said. "He wakes up early and has more of a routine. I also get more time with him, as well."

Dubai Customs is among the few government departments to so far open childcare facilities for their staff, and 26 children, aged two months to four years, are now enrolled at the nursery. The multicultural group of children half from the UAE, the rest from countries including Egypt, New Zealand and Nigeria are taught in both Arabic and English. They are looked after by eight women, half of whom are Emirati, from 7.15am to 2.30pm when their mothers walk the short distance from their offices to pick them up.

"In the beginning the mums come every two hours, or they call all the time," said Kaltham Meshar, the nursery's senior supervisor. "But after two to three months, they're fine and they trust us all." According to Maryam al Shamsi, the manager of the Dubai Customs Childcare Centre, when they first floated the idea, the response was overwhelming. "They only had one question: 'How can we register?'" Nearly a year later, the results are positive, according to Dubai Customs, with absenteeism down and the productivity of working mothers up.

"Also being late is less and the women feel more satisfied and produce more in the workplace," Mrs al Shamsi said. "Another advantage is that women will resign less." Some women have made the difficult choice of leaving their young children, sometimes just a few months old, with a nanny or placing them in a costly private nursery in order to continue working. Others have opted to leave the workplace altogether after starting a family. According to the Dubai Women Establishment which developed a set of standards to help government departments establish nurseries more than 20 per cent of women say they will leave work when they have their first child. "When I gave birth to Mohammed, I thought that I might quit my job, because you have to have them close to you, you feel you can't trust anyone and you're breast-feeding," said Mrs al Falasi, who has worked at Dubai Customs for seven years.

"I even handed in my letter of resignation because I wanted to be with him. But I changed my mind when I knew they would open a nursery." Reshmia D'Souza, 31, a Dubai Customs employee, was planning to keep her one-year-old daughter Damia at home with a nanny. But after three failed and costly attempts to hire a nanny from her native India, she decided to enrol her in the work nursery, where there is a separate nurse's room, a breast-feeding area and brightly lit classrooms.

"I honestly didn't have any other options at that stage," she said, as Damia slept peacefully in her cot nearby. "If there was nothing available at work, then I would have thought about a private nursery." However, with some private nurseries charging upwards of Dh25,000 (US$6,800) for three terms, this option is not possible for all government employees. By contrast, the government nurseries charge only nominal fees.

The Ministry of Social Affairs creche is Dh400 per month, and the parents of children at the Dubai Customs facility pay Dh350. The Ministry of Presidential Affairs plans to provide the service free of charge when they open a nursery later this year. Many female government employees are able to leave their children with their extended family or with a nanny. But some women, including Mrs al Falasi of Dubai Customs, say they have worried about leaving their children with their maid.

"This way we can do our work and know our baby is OK," she said. "It's important for me to continue with my career. This is my country and I want to help build it." zconstantine@thenational.ae