The visa freeze opens the door to 50,000 Omani job seekers, but does the ban target the right jobs and will it make the desired impact on the market and the economy? Alvin Thomas seeks to find the answers from experts
Sunday the 28th (January) was supposed to be another run-of-the-mill day for the residents of Oman. Most of them were at work – but little did they know what was in store for them. Not so long after the day commenced, residents of the country began receiving texts from their peers asking them to take a look at a newly issued decree.
It came as a shocker for many. The headlines read something like this: ‘Oman to temporarily stop issuing expat visas for 10 professions’.
Not knowing what was going on, several expatriate workers began calling up their employers and friends to get clarification.
But the news was self-explanatory: Expatriates working in 10 professions wouldn’t be issued visas in the private sector for a period of six months.
It wasn’t until noon, though, that the law was clarified: expatriates who were currently working with employment visas wouldn’t be affected by this law and, furthermore, that it would only apply to fresh foreigner job seekers.
Many – including some Omanis – heaved a sigh of relief after the clarification.
“Take my worst nightmare and put it in my real life – that’s what I felt when I saw the news floating around the internet,” narrates Timothy, a mechanical engineer working with a contracting company in the oil and gas industry.
“My contract with the company is up for review and renewal in March, and I thought I’d be on the streets after that,” he tells. He can only look back and laugh about it now as he tells us that he was emotionally torn when he saw the news.
“I’ve been working in this company for 25 years now, so asking me to leave would have been like asking me to rip my life in Oman away,” he adds.
Thankfully, Timothy, and the 1.69-million-odd expat workers in the country are safe… for now.
According to the ministerial decision taken by Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Bakri, the Minister of Manpower, the licences for recruitment of expat manpower in 10 professions – translating to 87 categories – were banned for a period of six months. The decision took effect from the day of its publication in the Official Gazette.
However, the decision does not apply to establishments owned by employers wholly devoted to management of their establishments which are registered with the Public Authority for Small and Medium Enterprises Development and insured with the Public Authority for Social Insurance.
The professions that are banned fall under these sectors: information systems, sales, marketing, administration, human resources, insurance, media, airports, engineering and technical professions.
Hailing the efforts of the government in an interview with Y is Tawfiq al Lawati, member of the Majlis al Shura. He says: “We have to look at this from all perspectives. There are about 50,000 Omanis looking for jobs currently. And so far, the sole provider of jobs – since 2011 – has been the government sector.
“So, the impact from the private sector has been quite low. And if you look at this case, the jobs that are on the list are those where the number of working Omanis is low or those that they don’t prefer to work in.
“This has created an imbalance in the job market and it is time for the private sector to step in and support the government.”
But getting the Omanis on board to work for private companies is not that easy. He explains that effort must be put in to motivate these youngsters to work in private firms.
His words stand true as the percentage of Omanis working in the private sector stood at a paltry 12.35 (per cent) by the end of 2016. This reflected to only 209,620 Omanis working in private firms, while the expat workforce in private companies stood at a staggering 1,697,671.
The expat figure in Oman is primarily dominated by three Asian countries: Indians at 669,882; Bangladeshis 590,170 and Pakistanis 220,112.
“The issue is that the salaries and pensions in private companies are less, and the work timings are a lot higher. But we need to take steps to show the people that there is great potential to grow within a private firm,” he says, adding that the government is doing its “level best to help balance the situation”.
“Despite all this, however, this is not a long-term solution. We need to find a more sustainable strategy that we can implement on a regular basis.
“For that, the government needs to work with the private sector as partners. Give them targets to fulfil, for instance. And when they do complete it, we must reward them.”
He then elucidates: “Those companies that are serious with their targets must be protected and compensated so that they can keep developing and moving forward.”
To further comprehend Tawfiq’s point, we ask him why there is a growing consensus of companies hiring expats than Omanis. To that, he says: “There is an argument that private sector companies want to improve the productivity of Omani workforce. And for that, we’ll need to provide proper training.
“To accomplish Oman’s ‘Vision 2020’ we need to invest in development and diversification of talent. And for that, we must train the youth of Oman. And if that’s the case, then we will definitely achieve an equillibrium in this job market,” he tells us.
His views stand in line with the government’s goal to provide 25,000 jobs to Omanis.
“Sufficient jobs will be generated in the public sector. Employment will be created in a variety of sectors, notably in oil and gas, finance, insurance, logistics and mining. The jobs will include those in special economic zones (SEZs),” Al Bakri told media personnel in December 2017, before going on to warn companies in the private sector “to strictly comply with the nation’s Omanisation policy”.
Meanwhile, prominent social worker PM Jabir is also lauding the efforts of the government to promote Omanisation.
“The government is doing a great job to help the citizens grow their careers and also to find jobs for those unemployed. In recent times, Omanis have also shown that they are more than capable of working in private sector offices efficiently.
“While this means that expats are no longer needed for these jobs, they can always look for new ventures back in their hometowns or forage into newer lands. Migration is a continuous process.”
The award-winning social worker adds: “Before the people of India came to the Gulf (the UAE, Oman, Saudi Arabia, etc.), they travelled to countries such as Sri Lanka, Singapore and even parts of Latin America in search of jobs. So, if the market here is saturated, it’s best that we look for newer opportunities.”
While many are in support of the ban, there are sceptics who are raising questions about how this will impact the economy of the country.
One Omani businessman (who wishes to remain anonymous) in charge of a contracting company that takes care of several telecom projects in Oman thinks that the ban will hamper the smooth operation of those firms undertaking specialised tasks within the country.
“Our company primarily caters to clients, and we use expat workers to fulfil jobs relating to surveying, civil engineering and even electronics engineers. We require the staff to have five to 10 years of experience on the field.
“And that’s where the problem is: Most young Omani applicants come straight from college with little or no work experience. And because of that, we’re forced to look for expensive Omani engineers or go for the cheaper alternatives from India and Pakistan.
“Don’t forget that the clients want the work done for the same amount of money – or less. So, it’s now up to us to get the best for our business.”
Zubair*, the chief executive officer of a leading printing press in Oman, also expresses his frustration, saying: “The media industry has definitely taken a hit here. We are not going to receive visas for 16 job titles – and it’s going to hurt our business.
“In the past, we would look to hire young Omanis for page making, press operators and so on. But they just never stayed, and after we would provide them with training, they would switch jobs to another field.
“And our efforts to advertise for Omanis also never bore fruit. They don’t want these entry-level jobs. In contrast, I only need to pay RO250 for a page maker in my press, and they are happy with it. But if an Omani wants to work in that position for that pay, I would only be happy to give him or her a job.”
Other concerns were also raised by Shashwar al Balushi, the head of Tanfeedh labour market lab and the chief executive officer of the Oman Society of Contractors. In an interview with Y, he tells: “If the job seekers are available to take junior positions and be trained for their role, then that is fine.
“But for certain tasks we need specialised and experienced people – and that’s why we outsource work and bring in expatriates who fit the criteria.
“In case of the construction industry, there is a demand by the client that the workforce must consist of specialised staff that have over 10 to 12 years of experience.
“This isn’t a problem for those that are already in place and working on a contract, but if a new contract is issued or if a contract is terminated, then the contractors will have a hard time sourcing a new and specialised team.
“What happens next is that the employer will have to go to the ministry and try to avail an exception to get approvals to procure new visas for expats. In all, it’s a hassle,” he tells, before going on to express his frustration: “If the government wanted to get more jobs for Omanis, they should have approached us and sat down for a discussion.
“We need to know how many job seekers are there and based on that we can make necessary arrangements to work through this period. I’m still waiting to see the number of unemployed members who have registered.
“But in all, I feel that this has been created to micro-manage the hiring of workers in different sectors because they can now say who can be hired and who cannot.
“Most of the times, laws are implemented based on social reasoning, and I fail to see the logic behind this move. For instance, to hire an engineer, he or she must have a proper degree. And an engineer becomes a real engineer after the person has gained experience for at least five years.
“This is a very important criterion. Even if you wanted to attempt an engineering board examination, you need to have four to five years of engineering training.
“Even to become a foreman, you need to have two to four years of experience. And it’s a job I don’t see Omanis wanting to opt for. So, then how can one learn and grow in their career?”
The CEO adds: “The same goes for a technician. So, at the end of the day, we need to ask whether the right professions were targeted with this visa suspension, and we need to sit down to see if this will make the right impact on our job market and, above all, Oman’s economy. Because to grow, we cannot simply restrict the market; these youngsters will actually benefit from working with experienced workers.”