Friday, December 3, 2010

Times of Oman article on Abused construction workers: Well done Saleh

In a refreshingly honest article a couple of days ago, Times of Oman's reporter Saleh Al Shaibany wrote about the continued abuse of Oman's construction labourers. See here.
Post-post addendum: And great to see Saleh now employed by a local paper, hopefully on a respectable stipend. He is def. the best Omani English reporter I've seen. We need a LOT more Omani reporters (and dare I hope, journalists too) in his vein.

The issues are captured, along with actual interviews with a couple of construction supervisors (although I'm not so sure naming them was a good idea). They point to the lax Government inforcement and inaction by workers' Embassies, as well as the unscrupulous and callous actions of local Omani building contractors.

Photo: Labourers in hazardous conditions are a common site across Oman. (from ILO, photographer P. Deloche

However, I would also blame the people employing these contractors. People, when you are having a new villa built, it's up to you to ensure the workers are well treated. Don't just shrug your shoulders and put it on the contractor. YOU.

Please step up and act - Insist the contractor adhere to the law. If necessary, call the Government officials and complain. Take responsibility. Let's see those oft-cited Omani cultural strengths of fairness to all, kindness, and moral values applied in your own back yard. These poor people are working for you.

If there was ever a case for an NGO to act, this would be a good one. It would be great to see more proactive stuff from the International Labor Organisation too: how about sponsoring some law suits for wrongful death and injury?

I also wish these workers would be allowed to properly unionise - they can't do that under current Omani law.

And well done ToO and Saleh. More please.

Contractors ignore labour rights

Saleh Al-Shaibany
01 December 2010 09:59:55 Oman Time

MUSCAT: Construction labourers are still working and living in appalling conditions across the country as contractors ignore their basic rights while the government inspectors continue to turn a blind eye.

Little has changed in the past 40 years for labourers as most construction site workers still have to live in wooden shacks braving both the smouldering heat during the summers and the winter chill.

The hygiene conditions of most of these sites are non-existent with toilet facilities being just a hole in the ground, a few metres away (in most cases) from the kitchen and the living quarters. Construction debris is strewn all over the place, ranging from sharp brick fragments to rusting steel. Common complaints of the labourers are food poisoning, heat stroke, injuries and fall from scaffoldings.

After hard physical labour and working in hazardous conditions, these workers are paid a pittance. The monthly salary ranges from just RO80 to RO120 with free medical facilities but they have to fork out money from their pockets to buy their own food. “Nobody cares about their welfare, not even their embassies. All of them come from a poor background arriving here to earn money so they could look after their families back home,” Hussein Al Lawati, general manager of Capital Manpower Services, said.
Construction workers in Oman are mostly south Asians, including those who work for companies building bridges and road networks. According to the latest Manpower Ministry statistics, there are 900,400 foreign workers in the private sector in Oman, out of which more than a third work in the construction sector.

Lawati said that the number of labourers is a third of all foreign workers and the figure is increasing every year due to the construction boom fuelled by higher government spending. According to official data, there were 306,150 construction workers in the country by the end of August 2010, a rise of eight per cent compared to August last year.

With the effect of the global financial crisis diminishing, the government is expected to announce a record spending budget of $20 billion for next year’s expenditure buoyed by more oil exports and rising oil prices in the last two years. “The boom is supported by cheap labour and yet, we don’t look after the people who toil all day to help the progress of the country. The government must acknowledge it and make sure that construction workers are given their rights with inspectors regularly visiting sites,” Lawati added.

Prakash Menon, a supervisor of a construction site in Al Khodh, said that he lost a labourer last summer from a fall and another worker broke a leg after a cement mixing machine rolled over. “The summer heat is a big problem, apart from lack of safety equipment like a harness to secure workers climbing the scaffolds. Contractors are also reluctant to buy new equipment even though major accidents occur,” Menon, said.
Ram Kumar, another site supervisor, said that his workers regularly end up in medical clinics from heat exhaustion, food poisoning and breathing problems. The wooden shacks, Kumar pointed out, are a major cause of fire since labourers use them as kitchens as well as sleeping accommodation.

He pointed out at the slimy water accumulated at a corner of his site overflowing to the road. “It is toilet water and the contractor refuses to pay for the weekly removal of the waste water because he wants to save money,” Menon, said.

Lawati said it was about making maximum profit from the construction contracts where contractors cut corners and deny basic rights to their workers. “The biggest culprits are contractors of private villas. The only way it would work is for both the embassies and the government to work together to come up with a law that would punish offending contractors,” Lawati, said.


  1. Yes nice to see Times of Oman being "refreshingly honest" but tell me, should government inspectors do the rounds - do they really "care" about the conditions of the labourers, I think not, they do not turn a blind eye - they don't even LOOK.

  2. Saleh has been an enterprising journalist for a long time and its intriguing that the Times have taken him on board – perhaps Times are a changing .
    Wages – if they get paid ! There was a street protest a few years ago about that and it hasn’t improved since .
    The Embassies , looking after workers from their own country looooool – the poor woman who died at the Airport after being stranded for 5 days is a nice example of the effort put in to get away from the social rounds .
    Is it any wonder there are so few Omanis in construction

  3. There needs to be enforcement such as the UK's HSE but until then there needs to be efforts by employers, Embassies and Government. Until then, we need more reports such as these and name the companies!

  4. This is, frankly, a multi-national problem. Many, if not most, contractor employees come from home countries where rudimentary safety practices are non-existent, e.g. wearing of safety boots and safety helmets on construction sites. It is unrealistic to expect that a small Omani contractor, struggling for economic survival, will take it upon himself to install standards of safety and accommodation that are internationally acceptable. No. That is wishy washy thinking. As a country Oman has to pass and enforce legislation, universally and fairly upon all contractors, for satisfactory HSE. Only by proper enforcement can the little contractor guy feel comfortable enough to raise his tender bids to cover the extra expenses. Honest contractors simply want a level playing field with fair competition. If the playing field is riddled with rules being largely flounted by most players it is totally unrealistic to expect a few to volunteer to price themselves out of the market. There is plenty of legislation already, but enforcement seems sporadic and unfair. The fault lies with the authorities, much more than the little contractors. As for embassies, we also need to get real. How can they demand that practices that are not enforced in their home countries be enforced here? PDO contractors bid according to the rules PDO has and enforces. They charge accordingly. As a country we need to decide whether we wish to price our contracting costs to match HSE standards that are not prevalent in most South Asian countries. I doubt that there is general consensus therein. Western countries have accepted the higher costs, because most of their workers are fellow countrymen. I doubt very much that the UK would care all that much for HSE if the vast majority of their workers were from the colonies. History has amply demonstrated otherwise. Construction site HSE would have been at a much higher standard here too if most workers were Omanis.

  5. So finally a day came where UD had to appreciate Times of Oman. Please give little of that credit to Mr. Zedjali also, for allowing Shabbani to publish the article. The change of heart is probably due to competition from Muscat Daily.

    You are very right that the cleanup has to start from the tendering stage itself. Tenders should have clauses to implement welfare of poor labourers like HSE related clauses. However if these conditions are not standardised by Government and there is a law to fine and punish the contractors, things are not going to change.

    Heartening to see that you are still keeping an eye on Omani media.

  6. You wrote "Contractors ignore labour rights". This is the great thing. I will share with my friends. Thanks.

  7. amazing article.
    it should be translated to Arabic and get published in Omani forums!

    keep it up dragon

  8. Wish more articles like this come out to highlight the real discriminations faced by expats in this country where nothing negative is published.

  9. I TOTALLY AGREE about thos ehiring the contracters being responsible. If you hassle your contractor to buy safety harnesses and give better homes to the workers, well, that gets it done. The government should also do something, but change starts in the backyard.

    I remember as a kid driving around to these construction sites handing out lunches and bottled water (my mother's idea) to prevent heat exhaustion in the summers, and my father bringing used safety equipment from back in our country to gift to these workers. It didn't even impact at all because those who hired their contractors never cared at all.

    Thank you UD for this post. And good article Saleh.

  10. Have a walk round MQ and see how many workers are forced to live in the buildings that they are actually building!
    Signs to look for:
    Empty window blocked up with boards, with AC unit
    Light escaping round the edge of the boards late at night.

    Is this "accommodation" better than what is offered to them at labourers' camps, or is there no choice?


  11. Most contractors be it Omani or otherwise tend to follow the safety rules only if it is being enforced by the concerned authorities... need not be government agencies only... even the project management companies in larger projects can enforce safety rules and penalize the contractor for defaults. In one of the project i had been involved the Project Manager of the civil construction company told me that he does not care for the safety of his workers as it costs time and money to his company and at the same time he needs work progress to his satisfaction... such callous attitude can be only changed by enforcing the rules strictly !!!


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