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UAE diversity law causing visa issues for businesses

AGBI’s Megha Merani explains the issue on Dubai Eye
  • Workplace ruling ‘reinstated’
  • South Asian nations affected
  • Meeting terms is ‘challenging’

UAE businesses are encountering difficulties getting work visas for new employees of South Asian nationalities following the enforcement of a government directive to boost diversity in the workforce.

Abeer Al Husseini, a Dubai-based partner at immigration law practice Fragomen, told AGBI that the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation has “reinstated” its demographic diversification regulation. 

“This rule has been in effect for a while, although certain aspects may have been inactive,” she said. 

“However, its enforcement became more apparent to us when some of our mainland clients were notified to comply with [the rule]. These notifications were explicitly related to the application of new work permits.”

Under the rule, companies must diversify the range of nationalities in their workforce, Al Husseini said – and there may be limitations on applications for a nationality that already represents 20 percent or more of a company’s current workforce. 

“The specifics of who to exclude may vary depending on the diversity mix of a certain organisation. However, based on applications we processed in the last few days our clients received similar prompts when filing applications of South Asian nationals,” she said.

Libbie Burtinshaw, the head of operations at visa services provider PRO Partner Group, also said it was facing numerous rejections in client applications for new visas for employees from India and Pakistan.

Companies will need to “reevaluate their hiring”, she said.

Revisions imminant

More than 200 nationalities live and work in the UAE. Indians form the largest foreign community, about 35 percent of the population, followed by Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.

Helen Barrett, a partner at CBD Corporate Services in Dubai, which helps companies set up in the UAE, said she expects certain sectors such as construction to have quotas set for them.

The rule mainly targets unskilled professionals, Fragomen’s Al Husseini said. “Applicability of this rule to highly skilled professionals remains to be determined, though it seems less probable,” she said.

Imminent revisions to the policy, a subset of the mainland company classification regulation, are anticipated later this month.

One of the prerequisites to achieve a higher tier classification is to “commit to the manpower planning policy by promoting cultural and demographic diversity in the labour market,” Al Husseini said.

Ascending tiers offer special incentives and exemptions, and benefit in bids for government tenders.

‘Challenging’ policy

Pamela Lilburne Opie, CEO and founder at Linen Obsession Textile Trading LLC, said that the rule “does not seem to be applied” if a company maintains the correct number of Emirati employees.

She said her company “may find this new rule challenging, as the greatest concentration of department store sales staff are within one or two main nationality groups, which are not Emirati,” she said.

“This is a significant issue, especially as it can be difficult to find and attract Emirati employees.”

The expatriate community outnumbers the population of UAE nationals.

Another Dubai business owner, who declined to be named, called the new policy “difficult”.

“While workplace diversity is a great thing, it should not be forced as that could cause friction,” he said.

“We care about hiring based on merit, affordability and about whether the candidate’s personality will fit our team culture – and nationality is often a part of that decision.

“This also has implications for salaries as some nationalities expect to be paid differently here.”

As the directive’s enforcement is recent Al Husseini said details of its implementation are still evolving. She added that Fragomen’s conversations with the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation and clients suggest the rule primarily affects new visa applications for mainland companies and, so far, does not apply in free zones.

The ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

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