Lost in translation

21 May 2014
POSTED BY Y Magazine

New rules on visas sparked a flurry of debate. The authorities have tried to clear up the confusion and make things straightforward. But how is it all going to work out for those at the sharp end? Tom Robertson and Kate Ginn report.

It’s extraordinary what an innocuous looking notice in a newspaper can do.

Certainly, no one could have imagined the reaction that would follow the publication of an official ‘Announcement’ by Royal Oman Police (ROP) in several daily media journals last week.

Perhaps the second line ‘Regarding employment visa’ gave a clue to the turmoil that might follow.

In 11 written lines, the ROP declared that, effective July 1, an employment visa would not be issued for foreigners who ‘previously worked in the Sultanate and has not complete two years from the date of last departure.’

[quote]What these announcements may do is lead to a feeling now where people working here feel unsettled. It doesn’t give out a positive image if people feel that their days are numbered[/quote]

Earlier this year, the Ministry of Manpower announced it wanted to reduce foreign workers by around six per cent. Nearly 90 per cent of all workers in the private sector are expats, according to the Ministry.

It seemed the Ministry was taking strident measures to push its long-term Omanisation policy (the aim is to reduce the expat population to 33 per cent of the total four million).

Social media in Oman went into a frenzy with Facebook and Twitter abuzz with speculation and rumours about the effect of the notification on the 1.6 million or so expatriate population in the country.

A further announcement that expat workers would not be allowed to switch between companies in the Sultanate merely added more flames to the crackling fire.

“We thought all the expats were going to have to leave or that if we left the country, we could not return for two years,” says one expat, who has a job in an accounting firm.

The Ministry of Manpower was forced to issue an official statement on Twitter to counteract the growing uncertainty.

It said the two-year ban only applied to expats who leave the country before the completion of their two-year contracts. Foreign workers would also be allowed to switch employers during their contract with a No Objection Certificate (NOC), the Ministry also confirmed.

There were reports the ROP had jumped the gun with the announcement or had misunderstood the terms. One official was even quoted blaming a confused translation from Arabic to English – there was no denying that the wording of the original ROP notice could have been misconstrued.

But while the authorities have tried to clarify the exact terms and implications of the rules, some still believe confusion remains.

“I think there seems to be a lot of confusion and even contradiction,” says Maggie Jeans, coordinator of the British Business Forum and herself an owner and operator of a company specialising in importing books.

“It may even be a lack of coordination between the ministry of Manpower and the Royal Oman Police.” 

But whatever the reasons, she is concerned that the recent announcements add to the challenges faced by those running businesses in the Sultanate.

“If you’re looking to employ an expat, it can already be hard to get visas.”

“What these announcements may do is lead to a feeling now where people working here feel unsettled. It doesn’t give out a positive image if people feel that their days are numbered.” 

Over 100 members of the Oman American Business Council (OABC) met with representatives from the Ministry of Manpower last week to discuss the issue. “The message was the while Oman would never have 100 per cent Omanisation, they want to get more senior jobs replaced with Omanis in the private sector,” one attendee tells Y.

Before these latest visa announcements, a raft of changes had already been brought in, such as restricting permits for females and construction workers (both of which are still in place).

The knock-on effect is being felt in different sectors, Y has discovered.  One private hospital has a list of doctors and nurses waiting to get visas, meaning staff have to work extra or even double shifts to cover gaps in the workforce. 

A sports complex has had similar problems obtaining visas for low-level foreign workers, forcing the current staff to work more hours.

Hotels, including the five-star ones, are encountering visa problems too.

Garry Friend, General Manager of the Grand Hyatt Muscat hotel, says: “We have had difficulty getting visas for females.

“We wanted to employ a pastry chef from Germany, a single lady, but it was refused. We ended up getting a male chef and didn’t have a problem getting a visa for him.”

Some have viewed the change and the tightening up on visas as part of the omanisation process. In place since 1988, the programme seeks to increase the percentage of Omanis in the work place, compared to expatriate employees. 

But while there’s a certain amount of flexibility with different sectors having different targets, these visa changes as part of Omanisation may need careful consideration, suggests Jeans.

“All countries need a balanced mixture of both expertise and experience,” says Maggie Jeans. 

“There’s no doubt that Oman has a willing and skilled workforce, but it’s always necessary to balance that with experience.”

But that’s a sentiment shared by key decision makers in the Ministry of Manpower. In response to a question on targeting 100 per cent Omanisation at the Oman American Business Council on 14 May, Salim Naseer al Hadrami, Director General of Development and Planning, is reported as saying that 100 per cent Omanisation is not part of the plan. He’s reported as acknowledging that no country can manage without a minimum percentage of expatriate population.

While Maggie Jeans sees the advantages to a having a system whereby employees can only switch employees without a letter of No Objection from employers, the business owner is worried about the future ramifications of an increasingly restrictive visa policy.

“I think that there are certain sectors where it might be hard to achieve the set quotas,” she says. “Such as the hospitality and construction sectors.

“I understand from others that it can already be difficult for businesses to get the required visa clearance for their employees. The obvious concern is that it reaches a point where these measures out off inward investment into the country. This would then be a real issue.”

So, the dust – and frenzy on social media – appears to have settled on the great visa debate. At least, for now it has.

Visa Uncovered

It’s confusion and complex, with lots of misunderstandings about the law and how it actually affects individuals. Here, Y attempts to untangle the facts

A standard employee contract between an employee and employer is governed by the Oman labour Law (2012) relating to Royal Decree No.35/2003, issuing the labour law.

A standard employment contract is drawn up between the employee and employer and has an effective duration of two years.

All expatriates who honour their employment contract by completing two years are reported to be free to depart from Oman, renew their visa with the same employer or to accept a job with a new sponsor.

The latest regulation targets expatriate employees who breach the two-year requirement, in that doing so can harm the interests of the employer.

Under article 41, an employee is entitled to terminate the contract prior to its expiry and retain full rights in certain situations:

  • If the employer has misled the employee at the time of signing the contract in relation to the terms of work.
  • If the employer doesn’t fulfill his obligations in accordance with the provision of the law.
  • If the employer commits an immoral act against the worker or his family.
  • If the employee is assaulted by the employer or a representative.
  • If there is grave danger threatening the safety or health of the worker (with conditions).

Important Questions

Can I break my contract and leave the country before the two years are up?
Yes. However, if you abscond or leave on bad terms, you will not be issued another work visa for two years.
If you receive a release letter or No Objection Certificate (NOC) from your employer, you will be able to return to work in Oman and apply for a working visa.

What if I complete my two year contract?
The options are to leave Oman, renew your contract or have the freedom to accept a new job with another employer.

Can I switch jobs during the two year contract?
The Ministry of Manpower and the ROP have clarified that an expat worker with an NOC can transfer companies inside Oman, even before the end of the initial two-year contract is complete.

How are companies affected?
If an expatriate worker leaves the company with an NOC, the former employer will not be able to apply for another visa for a member of staff to take his/her place.

When is this all going to happen?
From June 1 for the transference of visas, according to the ROP. The two-year visa ban is applicable from July 1.

Are visas being issued for female expats?
Restrictions were put in place by the Ministry of Manpower a couple of months ago relating to female workers. Preference is being given to males. However, companies can write to the Ministry specifying reasons why a female is required for a particular job and a clearance will be issued if deemed necessary by the Ministry.

Clearances are still being issued for female-specific jobs, including beauty sector, tailoring for women and selling women’s clothes. The restrictions are dependent on the size of the company. This visa was for a six-month period but after this, the Ministry will review and either relax or continue with the restrictions.

Any other restrictions?
Restrictions on issuing visas for construction workers and housekeeping staff are still in place. The move was an attempt to regulate the labour market.

Still confused?
Try the Ministry of Manpower website www.manpower.gov.om, though when we looked, we couldn’t find anything about the new visa rules.

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