When a company goes bust or falls on hard times, it’s the staff who face an uphill battle for survival, as Alvin Thomas reports.
When John Jacob* accepted his first job as an engineer in a contracting company for one of the Sultanate’s leading telecom operators, he was over the moon.
The 23 year old had it all: a desk with a nameplate, his very own chair, a RO400 laptop and even his own office. Everything seemed rosy in John’s world, especially after having spent almost six months without a job and living with his parents.
November 2015, as it turned out, was his “lucky month”.
His fortuitous reversal of fortune was not lost on him, as he acknowledges.
“Imagine this: one day you get a call from the managing director of a company and he asks you to join the team as a telecom engineer immediately. I was the happiest person alive,” says John.
“It’s funny because I had spent half a year seeking positions pertaining to the telecom field but perhaps as an assistant. I thought it was ironic – but fitting – since I was ready to adapt to the hectic work schedule.”
Following a short induction, John was given training in his field and was soon travelling all over the country, learning from industry leaders. Of course, being an engineer, he learned his tasks quickly and was ready to take on the demands of the job.
He received his visa, as well as a good salary, an impressive severance package and added benefits.
“Office life was awesome. I was given a salary of RO900, with added benefits such as travel, accommodation as well as food expenses,” he says.
“An engineer starting off in this country could never even dream about such a package.”
All was well in his world and those of the 20 other engineers who also worked for the company.
Work was plentiful, too. At one point, his company was sub-contracting for four other contractors.
“Work was hectic. We were working for three contractors across three regions in Oman. I would never get to spend time in the office any more. Everything I did was on the field.
“We even had to hire staff from another sub-contracting company just so that we could meet our deadlines,” he says.
However, as time flew by, in March he began to realise that his company was starting to close up the accounts as it had stopped issuing petty cash to staff.
“There was this one time when I went to the accounts department to claim fuel expenses that I had incurred after travelling six times a week from Ruwi, all the way to Rustaq [155km],” says John.
And it was only upon enquiring among his friends in management when he learned that three of the four contracting companies had not paid them for their work.
According to John, his company was owed more than RO100,000 in unpaid dues. His future, he says, “crumbled around him”. But his company forced the staff to stay put as “funds were due to come in soon”.
By May, however, the company went under. “The accounts department and the management started getting real with us. They begged us to stay with the company, and that we would be paid in full.
“They also didn’t pay the labourers, who were primarily from Pakistan. I felt bad, because they didn’t even have a single baisa for lunch.
“Soon, the landlord of the accommodation also evicted the labourers from his building in Amerat. Everything became a mess, and we were all still working for the company.
“Feeling bad for the workers, I remember buying them lunch. Otherwise, the poor guys would have died of exhaustion. But everyone kept working since we believed we would get paid some day,” John sighs.
John and the other staff stayed with the company for another three months before calling it quits. By now, his managing director had absconded and the accounts had dried out completely.
To avoid further problems, the company issued post-dated cheques to all of its employees, but asked them not to cash them, as the cheques appeared destined to bounce.
John stayed put. However, his colleagues didn’t. In order to fly back home and pay for utilities, many of the employees tried cashing the cheques with the banks.
“The cheque bounced. And certain individuals in management were jailed for issuing cheques with a dry bank account. The bank themselves asked us to file a case with the company and we did,” says John.
Speaking to Y, one bank official in Muscat, who did not want to be named, said:
“Post-dated cheques must be issued with extreme care, firstly, because it is handed over to a recipient but at the liability of the signatory party.”
“In such a case, the recipient will seek to obtain the payment he or she has been entitled to and if there is a shortage of funds, the cheque will bounce. Then, the cheque bearer has the choice of lodging a criminal complaint against the issuer.
“The Royal Oman Police will almost certainly conduct an investigation and the case may be referred to a public prosecutor,” adds the banking official.
In total, John is owed RO3,600 in salary and RO300 for his fuel expenses, leaving him in the lurch, as well as 60 other labourers who also worked for the firm.
However, John is only one of many workers who haven’t received a salary for months at a stretch.
Earlier this year, the Ministry of Manpower took action against nine out of 35 companies that had been warned to adjust their legal situation for delaying the issuance of salaries.
According to the Omani Labour Law, an employer cannot withhold the salaries of its employees for more than seven days after the due date falls.
According to Article 51 of Chapter One, Part Four of the Labour Law, workers who slated for payment of monthly wages will be paid at least once every month.
Speaking about the delay in payments, the general manager of a car showroom in Muscat, who did not wish to be named, says: “Paying the people who serve us is our primary concern and should be for other companies, too.
“Sadly, the current market is looking down on us now and there is a definite decrease in our sales. But that does not mean we have the right not to pay them for what they have earned.
“Our policy is that if we cannot afford a member of the staff, we will let him know the situation in advance, and arrange for his or her return, and if the employee is Omani, then we will reimburse a month’s payment so that he or she can get back up and sustain themselves,” he adds.
The Labour Law also states that whoever violates the provisions of Chapter One of Part Four will be punished with a fine not exceeding RO100. Additionally, this fine will be multiplied by the number of workers who are subjected to the violation, and the penalty shall be doubled in case of any repetition of such violations.
Moreover, the law also instructs employers that if the salary is paid by “piece”, or instalments, and the work requires a period that exceeds at least two weeks, the employee must be given an advance each week that is equal to the job that he or she has performed and the remaining salary shall be given in full within the week following the completion of the work assigned to the individual.
In other cases, the salaries of employees will be paid once every week. However, the salaries may be paid to them once every two weeks or once every month if they agree in writing to such an arrangement. In all cases, the salary must be paid within seven days from the end of the period in which it becomes due.
During our investigation, we also stumbled upon Mahmadullah, a labourer from Bangladesh who had been working with a sub-contracting company in Oman.
He said that upon his arrival in Muscat earlier this year, he had his passport confiscated by his employer and hasn’t received his wages for four months. Now, he cannot leave the company nor can he fly back to his home country until he receives consent from his employer.
Y also found that a bakery in the capital, which has more than one branch, was withholding the salaries of many of its employees.Bakery manager Shankar* says he hasn’t received a salary for more than eight months and that his employer is believed to have absconded. “Our bakery started having issues with cash flow early in January, when the oil prices dipped. I do not know how this has affected our bakery but they cut my salary from RO180 to RO150, and many others were receiving less than RO100 sometimes,” says Shankar.
“But definitely, since February, I haven’t received a single rial. My wife and kids are back home in India and I do not know how I can sustain them. Here, I have a few friends who give me food so that I don’t starve at night,” he says tearfully.
“I hear the Indian Embassy will help people like us but I do not even know who to approach. I don’t know who to approach nor do I know how to take up this case with the authorities,” Shankar adds.
Y contacted the Indian Embassy for comment, but they had not responded to our request at the time of going to press.
* Names have been changed for privacy reasons
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