Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Strikes and Unions in Oman - Neither the ROP or the International Trade Union Confederation very happy

Unions were recently made legal in Oman, reportedly in order to smooth the way for ratification of the Oman-USA Free trade agreement in the US Congress. However, the actuality of Trade Unions here doesn't really fit with what those from the West would recognise as a Union, and the International Union organisations seem to agree.

A few recent and related new items caught my eye, and my in-box.

For a start, reported a few days ago in the Arabic press, Saud Al Gabri, Head of the Federation of Workers in Oman, mentioned that the ROP were working to strengthen the 'protection' measures they have in place to protect the oil installations in the interior against the sort of labour riots or strikes recently seen in Kuwait and Dubai. (And the ROP seemed to be telling him as well to do his bit in making sure they didn't riot in the first place.)

Co-incidentally, a source in Bahwan Engineering Contractors BEC told me that, a few weeks ago there was a big incident at a BEC labour camp in the interior (near Qarn Alam), when over 500 Indian labourers effectively downed tools and blocked the entrance to the work site in protest at the circumstances surrounding the death of one of their colleagues. My source tells me that a young (29)[post-press correction: he was 39] Indian worker had suffered an apparent heart attack, and unfortunately died on the way to hospital. These things happen. But when word got back to his co-workers that the BEC ambulance transporting the poor man alledgedly had no defibulation kit and ran out of oxygen, they were a bit miffed to say the least, and promptly had a big sit-down protest. The sort of protest that one might call a strike. Such strikes are illegal in Oman, BTW, because you have to apply 3 weeks in advance for approval to strike, and even then no strikes are allowed in services considered essential to the public good (and I'm guessing that might include things like producing the nations life-blood: oil). Quite rightly, the ROP were called in to restore order by BEC management, and the ring-leaders and trouble makers behind this illegal strike rounded up and apparently shipped back to India. Hmmmm. [unfortunately I have no real evidence of this incident I can share with you, so it may be totally untrue, although I was able to confirm that a man did die of a heart attack on his way to hospital from the BEC camp there].

The original article then goes on to quote Oman Chamber of Commerce chairman Khalil Al Khanji saying that basically as far as workers rights go in Oman, everything's OK here, and that employers certainly needed to pay their workers on time and abide by their employment contracts.

In addition, Ministry of Manpower official Salem Hadrami was also quoted, reassuring us that The Omani labour law was in line with the requirements of the International Labour Organization, and that it guarantees the rights of workers, including expats. He pointed out that the Sultanate officially has authorised almost 40 trade unions so far, and that that fact guarantees the rights of workers against management abuse, and that on top of that there is general union of workers watching over everything and intervening as necessary.

So, that's alright then. [well, as long as you're not a housemaid, as you my dear are specifically excluded by that same law from the right to unionise. Sorry. And, hey! if you are a housemaid, WTF are you doing surfing the internet when you should be working!!!]

However, that statement above from the Ministry of Manpower doesn't seem consistent with the recent press release and report on Trade Unions in Oman published by the well respected INTERNATIONAL TRADE UNION CONFEDERATION (ITUC) (see exec summary below), complaining that although Oman in theory had a law allowing unions, the restrictions placed by the Government effectively made real free trade unions inoperable. Tsk tsk.

Geneva, 25 and 27 June
Press Release:

Oman has ratified only four of the eight ILO core labour standards.
Despite being a member of the ILO, the country has not ratified ILO Conventions 87, 98, 100 and 111, which are those core labour standards protecting freedom of association and collective bargaining and the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation as well as equal remuneration.

Despite some recent improvements most Omani workers, especially migrant workers, continue to be denied their basic labour rights including freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. While the proposed Constitutive Congress of a trade union centre is currently scheduled to take place later in 2008, serious concerns remain that the government may intervene again to delay the Congress or affect its proceedings and outcome.

Discrimination exists and women continue to face many forms of social discrimination throughout the country. Foreign workers are especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Child labour continues to be found in sectors of the economy such as agriculture, fishing and informal family business as well as camel racing. The legislation in force in Oman does not prohibit explicitly trafficking of people. The country is a destination and transit point for many workers that may become victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation. Foreign workers are reportedly sometimes placed in situations amounting to forced labour.

The full report makes good reading, unless you're an Indian worker hoping to actually get a decent union going I guess. The much vaunted Federation of Workers in Oman has so-far never been allowed to actually convene.
Government control over union activities persists.
The law provides
for one single federation of unions, which is not in compliance with ILO Convention 87.
However, even that federation has not yet been able to meet. Following earlier
postponement, the Constitutive Congress of a trade union centre is now scheduled to take place in September or October 2008. Serious concerns remain that the government may intervene again to delay the Congress or may interfere in its proceedings and outcome.

The report also finds the absence of legislated minimum standards unacceptable too:
Omani law does not provide for acceptable conditions of work especially with respect to minimum wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health. Workers have no legal right to remove themselves from unsafe work conditions and maintain their jobs, and laws protecting a workers´ right not to work beyond the maximum hours defined by law are not enforced. There is no minimum wage for several categories of work.

I must admit, this sounds pretty familiar. After all, we all regularly see labourers here [Indian, Pakistani, Afgani] working on building construction sites in conditions that are totally and utterly unsafe - working many stories high on rickety scaffolding, wearing flip-flops, no harnesses, no hard hats, 7 days a week, 12+ hrs a day, and living in a shack on site...

Strangely, the normally fearless and hard-hitting Times of Oman is yet to raise the issue of this ITUC report, which is pretty blunt and factual about the piss-poor state of play in Oman for free Trade Unions. Also, I haven't seen any mention of the strike my BEC contact tells me about either, or of the preparations of the ROP to (thankfully) be able to deal firmly with any more illegal labour riots in the interior either.

Perhaps the mostly Indian writers and other staff at the ol' Times should think about forming a Union...


  1. Khalil Al Khonji's own businesses are stuffed with non Omanis so of course as far as he is concerned ‘everything's OK here’ – his employees keep their mouth shut and mumble ‘ yes boss’.

    If you look at the Teachers who protested a few years ago at the ministry in Al Falaj, the Nurses who protested a few years ago in Al Wattayah and the new potential Teachers protest - Omanis feel that collective protest enables them to be heard by the government in a way that an individual will never be heard .

    The Indian construction workers who protested a few years ago in Al Azaiba about the non payment of their dues feel like many others non-Omani workers that collective protest enables them to be heard by the government to support their claim against their employers in a way that an individual will never be heard.

    So if people feel that they are being treated unfairly or as in the case of BEC in a life threatening manner what would you have them do – talk individually with a massive organisation or try and elevate their bargaining power.

    And yes – pity the poor domestic worker 24 hours service for madam and family.

    If non-Omani workers have no bargaining power you know that Omanis are not much better off – it’s a rentier situation after all.

    Strangely, the normally hard-hitting Times of Oman which has to be noted noted for its absence of Omanis in its team is now part of the land owning elite and may wish to keep in line ready for the bail out of Al Madina Azarqa

  2. Anon,

    1/ please comment under a nickname. Lots of anons make it impossible to track who's saying what.

    2/ Please don't get the idea that I'm not a supporter of collective representation. I think real Free Trade Unions, with reasonable legislation to control the side effects, would be a huge force of change and improvement, especially wrt health and safety and general working conditions.


If you wish to post anonymously, please pick a nickname by selecting the Name/URL option, or at least sign off your comment with one! I will delete comments I find objectionable or needlessly inflammatory. Sorry for the word verification.... OMG the spam has gotten BAD these past 12 months... trying to avoid making one log in...