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Struggling solo.

Single parents in the UAE are struggling to balance work and childcare, SMEs could shift this balance and gain employees for life with a little compassion

Until recently, no-one knew there were single parents living in Dubai, they were a silent minority, but, as divorce has escalated in the UAE [1], so has the incidence of single parents with sole financial responsibility for their children.

Being a single parent with sole financial responsibility for your child anywhere in the world has immense challenges, being a single parent in Dubai has even more, primarily because there are no support systems in place for single-parent families; no school fees discounts, no official support, very few (and usually very expensive) after-school and school holiday clubs that cater to working single parents and, very few companies who make allowances for single parents to have more time flexibility during their working day.

A lack of corporate flexibility means that many solo parents miss out on important moments with their children, the pick-ups during the first week of school to make sure their children are settling in, the sports days, the school concerts during work hours and much, much more. It means that solo parents are compromising bringing up their children to put food on the table, provide a good education, and keep a roof over their children's heads. That is not a choice any parent should have to make.

A recent report by Zurich International Life stated that education for a child, in the UAE will cost AED 1 million (and that is not even taking into consideration college or university!). Another recent article stated that a mother from a two parent family returning to work would need to earn approximately AED 120,000 to make the family's books balance with just one child, this means that if you are a single parent you would need to be earning almost double this to raise one child in the UAE. Many single parents are mothers who left work to look after their children full time, these women are being forced into the workplace with several years' gap in their CVs and are often hired at minimal wages.

So, what can be done?

At the very heart of the matter is the UAEs hiring culture. Families, and solo parents (in fact anyone with a child) is not seen as a company asset, but rather a company problem. This is because, particularly in larger companies that pay for school fees or a larger housing allowances, families and solo parents are seen as an extra expense. Companies would rather hire a single person with no responsibilities, no extra costs, no need to be off work for a sick child. This kind of hiring practice was prevalent during and just after the 2008 financial crisis. Currently, with the mass redundancies across all sectors, families are the first ones getting downsized no matter how many years of service they have given.

The UAE went through several years post 2008 where it became slightly more family friendly, but it seems those days are far in the past.

If we were living in an ideal world, what we would see from companies in the UAE would be support of families, and solo parents in particular. The first step towards this goal would be softer working practices, such as allowing flexi-time for working solo parents, to allow them to pick up their children from school, or take them to activities. Many in company management would argue that giving single parents more flexible time would mean that they would have to give more flexible time to everyone, but I disagree. In small businesses, keeping loyal employees happy is more important than in a big conglomerate, and SMEs in particular need to keep employees happy. I sincerely doubt any other employee would begrudge more flexible time to a solo parent.

Flexible time for single parents would create a far more loyal employee. For a single parent, it is hard enough to squeeze work and parenting into a single day, let alone job-hunting, finding another job close enough to their child's school to make it viable, and trying to make sure that any change does not impact the life and well-being of their children. If a business offers benefits to single parents, they are far more likely to be an employee for life.

A second very helpful initiative by SMEs would be to offer to pay a portion of school fees, or if that is not possible, provide interest free school fees loans to single parents, whereby an amount is deducted directly from the employee's salary every month to cover the loan. Many schools in the UAE offer a discount for fees paid upfront for the year, if the company could provide an interest free loan to cover the annual school fees, then both the company and the parent benefit. A third area where SMEs could help single parents is by either including children's sick days into the employees annual sick leave allowance, or, providing compassionate leave when a child is sick. Or even just letting single parents work from home. There is nothing worse than being at work while your little one is being looked after by friends, or a nanny. To add to this, sometimes it would be useful if the company allowed single parents to bring their kids into work. Sometimes the nanny is sick, school is off etc. and there are just no options available for child care. A little compassion goes a long way.

The fourth area where SMEs could help single parents is by providing an initiative whereby either they pay for flights home for the parent and child once a year, or, provide a savings scheme/corporate discount scheme where the employee can get flight discounts or have a small amount of money deducted each month to go towards a discounted flight. Flights home, so that children can meet their grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles are essential, and often out of reach of a single parent. Consider that flights to the Philippines run at an average of AED 4,000, a flight to the UK for one adult and one child is around AED 6,000 - add a few more thousand dirhams for travelling during school holidays. These kinds of prices are out of the reach of many two parent families, let alone a one parent family.

Finally, medical insurance. While companies now have to provide medical cover to employees, they currently do not have to provide medical insurance for dependents. Providing a good all-inclusive medical insurance for children of single parent employees will ultimately mean fewer days off, and a greater peace of mind for the employee.

Big conglomerates have creches, flexible time, pay school fees, and even pay for flights home, but for many of the few thousand single parents in the UAE, this kind of job is way beyond their reach.

The soaring costs of living in the UAE have created the perfect storm, single parents and families across the Emirates are evaluating whether it is better to stay and struggle against rising costs, or leave and go back to their home countries where they will struggle, but are likely to have family and government support, many others are fearing for the security of their jobs.

SMEs in the UAE need to see the value, loyalty, and hard work a single parent can bring to their organisation, and, as with any employee, work with them to build a corporate culture that allows them to care for their children as well as bring the strength of character, determination and drive they exhibit in their personal lives to benefit the company.

A happy employee is a valuable employee.

Monthly costs for a single parent with one child (conservative estimates)

Rent in a middle income area for a two bed apartment plus moving costs, agency fees, deposit, DEWA connections: AED 120,000

Schooling in a middle cost school - AED40,000+ in FS/Pre-K grades increasing yearly to AED 80,000+ in senior for English or US curriculum

Groceries for two people, entertainment, transport & misc at AED 36,000 per year

DEWA/Emicool AED 8,400 per year

Internet/TV package - minimum AED 4,020 per year

Nanny salary/cost of after school club - AED 24,000 per year

Nanny Visa - AED12,000

Total needed salary: AED264,420 per year

Monthly: AED 22,035

[1] According to a report published in The National.

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Publication:CPI Financial
Geographic Code:7UNIT
Date:Sep 19, 2016
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