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The United Arab Emirates, like other GCC countries, has worked hard to combat all types of employment discrimination in a bid to ensure equal work opportunities and rights. 

A recently published law now sets the overall tone for how employers should address discrimination in the workplace. 

In a nutshell, “any discrimination on the basis of race, colour, sex, religion, national or social origin or disability which would have the effect of nullifying or impairing equality of opportunity, or prejudicing equal treatment in the employment, the maintenance of a job and the enjoyment of its benefits, is prohibited,” according to Article 4 of the UAE’s new Labour Law, Federal Law No. 33 of 2021.

Put simply, the law forbids discrimination not only with respect to employment (equality of opportunity) but also in the maintenance of a job. That is, not only must employers not discriminate in recruiting, but they must also avoid it in firing, job training, promoting, and remunerating workers.

Consequently, as an employer, you must know what is considered illegal discrimination in the workplace to avoid legal issues. 

Above and beyond legal troubles, familiarity with the laws against discrimination in the workplace can help you avoid an unproductive work environment and negative public image

“Discrimination results in and reinforces inequalities and could result in poor morale of the employee, high turnover, poor commitment and subsequently result in a negative impact on the organizational performance,” according to a study published in the International Journal of Advanced Academic Research.  

Therefore, to be in the good books of the law, create a more productive and happy work environment, and maintain a positive public image, you must avoid these nine types of employment discrimination. 

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1. Gender discrimination

The new Labour Law is clear that both men and women must have equal employment opportunities and that no one will be denied employment solely because of their gender. 

Similarly, both men and women must receive the same remuneration for the same type of work. The journey towards equal payment for men and women began formally in the UAE with the Gender Balance Council that was created in 2016. The council released a guidance book in September 2017 to guide businesses on how to achieve gender balance in the workplace.

In addition, the UAE cabinet also issued a Law on Equal Wages and Salaries for Men and Women to further entrench the principles of equal pay among the genders.

Men and women must also have equal opportunities when it comes to job training and promotion; if the company needs to fire employees, it must not be done on the basis of gender. 

Therefore, ensure that in recruiting, remunerating, firing, training, and promoting, your company sticks to merit rather than gender-based decisions.  

2. Race or skin colour discrimination

The Labour Law also forbids discrimination on the basis of race or skin colour. As the “home of expats,” (over 90% of UAE’s labour force are expats), this is especially relevant. 

The UAE is a diverse nation with workers who come from Africa, Europe, Asia, and other Arab nations. Consequently, almost every race is represented. 

In the recruitment process, no one race should be favoured or disfavoured because they are a different colour. Also, in training, promotion, and firing decisions, the race or skin colour of a worker should not be a factor. 

This means that you should avoid generalising about personal characteristics based on your experience with some people from a certain race. Labelling all Caucasian people as one stereotype or all people of African descent as another does not do justice to the character and personality of a particular job seeker or employee.   

3. Disability discrimination

According to the Ministerial Decree No. 43 of 2018, people of determination (those with special needs), must be given opportunities equal to those without disabilities.

The decree defines people of determination to include “any person with a permanent or temporary disability or deficiency totally or partially in his/her physical, sensory, mental, communicative, educational or psychological abilities to the extent that it reduces the possibility of meeting his/her normal requirements in comparison of the circumstances of their peers who are non-disabled persons.”

Instead of refusing to give them jobs or discriminating against them in the workforce, the law requires that employers should: 

    • Grant them equal employment opportunities and equal pay as those without disabilities
    • Communicate job adverts through mediums they can understand, avoid discriminatory words in the advert, and give them enough time in their interviews
    • Provide them a safe and working environment in line with their disability
    • Not terminate them or force them to retire solely based on their disability 

When hiring new employees, give people of determination equal opportunities and when they get a job, provide them with everything they need (as appropriate to their condition) to succeed on the job. 

4. Pregnancy discrimination

Pregnancy discrimination is the refusal to give a job to a pregnant woman or someone who intends to get pregnant at any time during her years of service. It can also include refusing to give pregnant women paid maternity leave or terminating their employment contracts. 

Article 30 of the new Labour Law specifically requires that employers give pregnant employees 60 days of paid leave (even in unfortunate circumstances of stillbirth or infant death). Furthermore, they are entitled to extra 45 days of unpaid leave for any pregnancy-related or childbirth-related sickness.

Also, pregnant women are entitled to extra 30 days of paid leave if the child turns out to be a sick child or a person of determination in need of the mother’s constant companion. 

Nevertheless, none of these paid or unpaid leave can be a pretext for the employer to fire an employee. Instead, after returning to work, the woman has a right to two breaks per day to breastfeed the child.

In summary, pregnancy is not a fair basis for employment decisions and no woman should be discriminated against because of it.     

[For more on leave calculation in the UAE, read “How to Handle Leave Salary Calculation in the UAE”]

5. Religious discrimination

The UAE took a big step in 2015 with its Anti-Discrimination Law. The law forbade any form of discrimination against religion or the people practicing it. Though not directly related to employment, Article 17 of the law requires that employers will educate their employees on how to avoid hate speech and discrimination against people based on their religion.

More specifically, the new Labour Law prohibits discrimination in hiring, firing, training, and promoting based on a person’s religion. Rather, everyone should be treated fairly based on merit. 

In addition, this also means that people should not be harassed in the workplace for their religious beliefs.  

6. Nationality or ethnic discrimination

Discrimination based on nationality or ethnicity is frowned upon just as discrimination based on race or skin colour. 

Again, the UAE is a melting pot of many nationalities. And no prospect or employee should be discriminated against because of the country they come from. 

As said before, one or two experiences with someone from a certain country is not enough basis to generalise about the character and personality of people from that country. Everyone must be given an opportunity to show their unique quality and character.

However, in order to promote a greater mixture of nationalities in the workforce, the UAE government passed its Emiratisation strategy, which is designed to increase the number of Emiratis in the workforce. 

This could be considered a type of positive discrimination law, which we will go over more at the end of this article. 

In essence, this strategy (outlined in Ministerial Orders 41, 42, and 43 of 2005 of the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratisation) requires that “every company with more than 100 employees is obliged to recruit (and retain on the payroll) the stipulated number of UAE nationals to ensure the minimum percentage of participation of Emiratis in the workforce.” 

However, it also focuses on “development-oriented policies that support productive activities, decent job creation,” and includes a commitment to “increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship.”

By focusing on skills development and an increase in the number of available jobs, this Emiratisation strategy ensures that companies can fill their quota of Emiratis without impacting their existing workforce. 

Aside from this requirement, all other job openings must be equally available to people of all nationalities. 

7. Age discrimination

Though the new Labour Law says nothing about age, there has been global interest in ensuring that older workers who are still within working age (65 is often the unofficial upper limit), have equal opportunities for jobs they are qualified for. 

“Age discrimination is the adverse treatment of an employee based on their age—typically over age 40—rather than on their individual merit,” according to The Balance Careers, a human resources education website.

However, age discrimination can also rear its ugly head in promotion, training, and firing decisions. 

Though the new Labour Law says nothing about age, the Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM) and the Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) have employment regulations that prohibit age discrimination.    

8. Parental or marital status discrimination

While some employees discriminate against single people (often considered irresponsible), some discriminate against those with families (because of possible divided attention).

Like all other forms of discrimination, it is wrong to hire, fire, promote, and train on the basis of one’s marital or parental status. 

In fact, Article 32 of the new Labour Law provides for a 5-day paid parental leave for parents (father and mother) that just had a new child

9. Positive discrimination

This last discrimination is a bit different from the other types of employment discrimination we have considered so far. How so?

In an attempt to correct for instances of all the above discriminations in the past, many employers have embraced what is best described as positive discrimination. It is also called affirmative action in many Western countries. 

An example of affirmative action is favouring blacks in admission to colleges or, more relevant to us, favouring women in employment to certain jobs (mostly jobs in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics [STEM] industry).

While this positive discrimination has good intentions (to compensate for past discrimination), it can also have negative effects. 

First, those who get jobs based on affirmative action feel they have not earned it and are only there because they were favoured. This feeling can even become more acute when another person who didn’t get the job through affirmative action acts boastful in front of the recipient of positive discrimination.

Secondly, those who didn’t get the job because of positive discrimination can become incensed and instead of building bridges between two groups of people, it can lead to further antipathy.

For example, the United States and South Africa have long applied positive discrimination policies, locally known as affirmative action laws. In these countries, it is not uncommon that news reports of increased anger among newly marginalised Caucasian communities, who complain of not being selected for jobs that they have equal (or even better) experience for when up against an African/African American counterpart. 

Though the laws against discrimination in the workplace in the UAE do not include regulations about affirmative action, employers might be drawn to it nonetheless. 

As is the case with Emiratisation, it’s better to focus on empowering the groups of people we want to be more represented in the workforce with the skills they need and work towards producing more jobs. When these two are present, positive discrimation can occur more naturally without negative impacts on both parties.

A good way to know if there is any entrenched discrimination in your company is to take a closer look at your payroll information. Are you paying two people differently for the same job because of any of the characteristics highlighted above?

To avoid this, you need an efficient payroll system that gives you complete visibility of your workforce payroll and allows you to make changes that will remove any form of discrimination. 

With NOW Money, you get access to a fully digital, flexible, and cost-effective payroll system where you can view employees data and make any relevant changes based on laws guiding discrimination.

[Sign up at NOW Money to start paying all your workers what they are entitled to based on merit or first tell us more about you and we’ll get back to you with the best way to move forward.] 


  • The concern for equal opportunities and equal rights means there is no room for unjust discrimination in the hiring, firing, training, remunerating, and promoting of workers. 
  • The 9 types of employment discrimination that you must avoid include discrimination based on gender, race/skin colour, pregnancy, nationality/ethnic, age, parental or marital status as well as positive discrimination. 
  • Discrimination can lead to an unproductive workforce and bad public image. 
  • To avoid legal battles, ensure a productive workforce, and maintain a positive public image, you must avoid all sorts of unjust discrimination.
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