The controversial No Objection Certificate (NOC) is back in the spotlight thanks to a recent Government survey on Twitter asking residents to vote on whether or not they support the rule. Alvin Thomas investigates.
June 20, 2016, was a significant day in the life of Varun Reddy*. He quit his job as the manager of a leading engineering contracting company in Oman; a job he had been doing for 20 years. The 55-year-old expatriate, from Jaipur in India, had been working for his employer since 1996.
However, a swift decision to promote a younger colleague to general manager – a position promised to him initially – prompted Varun to resign.
His only request was a No-Objection Certificate (NOC), which his company initially agreed to. Varun was happy, as he had already received two “lucrative” job offers from rival companies.
An NOC is a letter granted by an employer to expatriates who want to move from one job to another at the end of their contract. The law came into effect in July 2014.
Varun recalls: “My colleagues were all supportive of me leaving, as they thought that it was best I was moving on after the regional office glossed over two decades of my work. Our chief executive officer also promised me an NOC so that I could pursue a better career for myself.”
However, a week into his one-month notice period, his new general manager scrapped his NOC, leaving him and his family in a dilemma.
“The moment I was told by my new boss that I was not going to get an NOC, I realised that I had nowhere to go. “My wife was working in the accounts department of a sub-contracting company and earns RO450, but that was not going to be enough to keep our family running. We also have a son who is doing his aeronautical engineering in the US, and have to fund two more years of his tuition fees.”
Varun then breaks down: “I had no idea what I had to do. I am sure the general manager had a strong say in this. He completely disregarded me and left us on our own.
“He also slashed half of my gratuity claiming that I had caused unpreceded losses for the company, and threatened to take away the whole gratuity if I filed a case against the organisation.”
After a very long discussion with his wife and son, he decided to leave the country. And on July 21, 2016, Varun’s company cancelled his visa and he boarded his flight home.
“My public relations officer – an Omani – was also emotional, as everyone in that company was close to me,” he adds.
Roughly two weeks from now it will be a year to the day since Varun left his wife for his hometown. His wife, Lata*, says the two have not met since her husband left the country.
Lata says: “I tried to apply for a visit visa for him last week but our public relations officer
says that he cannot even visit the country. Even I am getting weaker by the day, as I am giving up hope of trying to work out some form of a solution.”
However, the two began hoping for a change in the situation in October last year, when a media outlet carried an “exclusive” story stating that the NOC rule would be scrapped.
However, Lata says it was “a cruel move to give struggling expatriates false hope and a feeling of comfort”.
She says: “I called up Varun to tell him that there was a possibility for him to return to Oman. We had only been apart for a few months then, and thought that everything would fall back in place for us. But, as we all now know, that was
not to be.”
The issue of scrapping the NOC rule was back in the spotlight a few weeks later after it was confirmed that Tanfeedh – “Oman’s solution to raise issues surrounding a non-oil future, and discuss ways to prepare the country for a better tomorrow” – was introduced to discuss the prospects of a revised NOC law.
The labour lab, headed by Shashswar al Balushi, had drawn up proposals around the NOC regulation to make it fairer to both employers and employees.
However, no notable changes were made to the NOC law after six weeks of brainstorming sessions, and news surrounding the issue vanished into thin air by February this year.
But last month many expatriates, including Varun and Lata, were given another glimmer of hope when the Tanfeedh Implementation Support & Follow-up Unit (ISFU) launched two polls on its Twitter account (@ISFUOman) – one for Arabic-speakers and one for English-speakers – asking business owners and members of the public for their opinion on the NOC rule.
“The NOC structure must be modified to make sure it works well,” Shashwar al Balushi, the head of Tanfeedh labour labs and also chief executive of the Oman Society of Contractors, was quoted by local media as saying.
However, the voting for the Arabic poll sided with the NOC from the beginning, with much of the voters casting their votes in favour of keeping the rule.
By the end of day one (Thursday, June 22), the Arabic poll had 910 votes, with 61 per cent voting to retain the NOC, 33 per cent agreeing to remove it, and six per cent voting “not sure”.
Meanwhile, by the end of the first day, the English-language poll received 609 votes, with 80 per cent unsupportive of the NOC, 18 per cent supportive of it, and two per cent “not sure”.
The polls also attracted a range of comments from many respondents.
But, in an effort to clarify what the poll meant, the ISFU also tweeted an infographic with a definition of the NOC, and arguments for and against the regulation.
In its tweet, the ISFU stated: “Some business owners believe that NOCs lead to restrictive movement of workers, and decrease their productivity, and therefore lead to barriers in front of business with regards to attracting talent from world markets.
“Other employers think that this certificate protects the confidentiality of both the profession and their clients, and it serves their interest.”
Y Magazine contacted several employees in various fields while the poll was being conducted.
Siddhant Giri, an operations officer from a leading contracting firm for a telecom company in Oman, says: “The NOC law is clearly one way for companies to squeeze every inch of their manpower. Thanks to this, people have lost faith in work, and even the system.
“Can you imagine coming to work in a company that you do not want to work in?” he asks. “I would sincerely like to ask the officials at Tanfeedh to reconsider the NOC law, and perhaps meet at a halfway point.”
Meanwhile, numerous expats say their employers exploit staff by making them work long hours in return for no extra pay, as well as working on weekends, cancelling annual leave, and withholding salaries for weeks or months at a time.
Adam*, a top-level expat employee at a leading petroleum company in Oman, says numerous employees of a company contracting for his firm’s refineries have not been paid for more than six months.
“I was aghast when the workers came to my office asking me to help them. What upset me even more was that they hadn’t even had lunch that day as they couldn’t afford to have their meals. That is unacceptable.
“Their company doesn’t care about the workers. For them, all they have to do is make sure they meet their targets. Most of the labour force allegedly threatened to quit a few months back and in response, the company told them they were free to quit, and leave for their hometown and not look for another job in Oman.
“Will there ever be a solution here?”
Apart from being criticised for allowing employers to exploit employees, the NOC has also been blamed for the Sultanate’s drop in points – from 70 to 66 – in the Global Competitiveness Index 2016-17, which is an annual report published by the World Economic Forum that assesses the ability of countries to provide high levels of prosperity for their citizens and residents.
On June 28, six days into the poll, the results were published. And to the surprise of numerous expatriates and citizens alike, the votes came out in favour of keeping the NOC law.
The final results of the Arabic poll indicate that most respondants “disagree” with removing the NOC guideline (62 per cent), while only 32 per cent of voters “agree” with removing the regulation. Six per cent were unsure. In total, 7,117 votes were cast on the Arabic poll.
Results from the English-language poll revealed that 56 per cent of voters “agree” with the NOC rule, while 42 per cent said they do not, with the remaining two per cent saying they were “unsure”. In total, 28,738 votes were cast on the English-speaking poll, thereby amounting to the total number of votes of 35,855.
The polls show that about 20,506 votes went for the NOC rule, while 14,347 votes went against the NOC rule, while 1,002 voters were undecided.
An expatriate woman, who declined to be named, says: “The results of the poll will have no impact on the NOC issue in general. I knew that from the beginning and because of that I stayed away from voting. I have just lost hope.”
The results of the poll, however, have been welcomed by some.
One Omani citizen, Ahmad Ali al Maimany, a human resource executive working for a telecom firm, says: “I can understand why the numbers are in favour of the NOC rule. The Omanis who are graduating from the colleges need a job too. The unemployment rate is quite high here and we need to support the young generation a bit to give them that push.”
In a Ministry of Manpower report, there are more than 54,000 registered jobseekers, and unemployment in 2016 stood at 18 per cent.
A significant proportion of this group, as Ahmad points out, are new graduates. School drop-outs also add to the number of jobseekers, with 6,129 registered as of last year.
Sulaiman*, an Omani graduate in the field of information technology, has been looking for work in vain for the past eight months.
“I do not know if I will ever get a job in the field of IT here in Oman,” Sulaiman says. “Most of the private companies prefer taking in expatriates from India and Pakistan as they sometimes have better experience and thereby more exposure.
“I do not intend to be insensitive to my fellow expat friends but I think we Omanis are finding it hard to get a job here due to the saturation of the expatriate workforce. And how can you expect our country to grow if that is the case?”
Ahmad Ali al Maimany says: “We need to focus on one thing at a time. First, let us get our children out from the streets and into the offices, then let us shift our focus on stabilising the job market for the expatriates.
“But that will take us a very, very long time.”
The National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI) revealed that Oman’s population stood at 4,558,847 last month. Of this, the expatriate population stood at 2,054,594, or a total of 45.1 per cent of the total number.
While this is a drop of more than 6,000 expats, the total Omani population stood at 2,054,594 constituting 54.9 per cent of the total population.
But experts believe that expatriates will only rise in numbers over the coming years.
Sudhir*, an expatriate businessman who owns an aluminium fabrication company in Oman, believes the only the way to solve this issue is to “meet halfway” and work out a “viable fix”.
“Why don’t we allow those who have completed a two-year contract with his or her employer to change jobs freely?” he asks.
“There’s a basic decorum that has to be followed when it comes to implementing laws, and it has to be in favour of all parties [Omanis, expatriates and businesses]. Right now, I believe that the reason the NOC law is still being favoured is because a lot of Omanis believe it will aid in Omanisation.
“But let me tell you one thing: it really will not help in any way. Most companies don’t issue NOCs stating that they will lose their visa for hiring another expatriate. While the government has not made it clear if that is actually the case, I can tell you that most companies will try re-hiring an expatriate on that visa; not hire an Omani.
“So who is at fault now? I personally feel that this is a one-sided game. I am a man who believes that everyone must be given a fair chance in life. If that is the case, then he or she will work harder, which in turn will amount to higher productivity and higher revenues, and that will ultimately turn out to be a better way for the country to progress.”
Sudhir’s comments are further echoed by numerous voters who have voiced their opinion on Twitter.
Meanwhile, in his recent interview with local media, Shashwar al Balushi is quoted as saying: “I think expats must understand the company has outsourced a certain job to them so they should be fair to the company by honouring the two-year contract. In this manner, the NOC is good and should stay and expats must honour their contract.
“If an expat worker has completed his two-year contract and wants to leave the current employer, he must be allowed to leave without the need for an NOC,” al Balushi added
The ISFU team has been conducting meetings with different Tanfeedh initiative teams to evaluate Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), and find solutions for the challenges they face – and a verdict on the NOC is expected to be reached soon.
But until then, the existing laws are still in order, and Varun and Lata – among many other angry expatriates – will continue to be affected by the rule that is the NOC.