Y Investigation: Construction workers in Oman still at risk despite reforms

15 Mar 2018
POSTED BY Y Magazine

They work 12 hours a day and seven days a week in hazardous conditions, but companies hold back their wages for as long as half an year. That’s inhuman, but a new classification system could offer them relief, write Alvin Thomas and Hasan al Lawati

When you think of the Sultanate, the sights that come to mind are those of beautiful mountains peaking over the horizon, walking past the vapours of oud in the historic Muttrah souk, taking a stroll on the beach with your loved ones or going wadi bashing with your mates on a break. It’s all very appealing; cinematic, even.

But gloss over the obvious and into the other side of things, and you’ll find yourself staring into the lives of many individuals whose stories are often untold and, unsurprisingly, are nothing short of heartbreaking.

Such is the case of Dineshan* (name changed to protect identity) who we caught staring through the windows of one of the leading gyms in the Muscat region in awe during the wee hours of a Saturday.

“It’s funny to see that people are here to lose weight and build muscle. We do that on a daily basis: we lift weights to build houses,” he laughs in Malayalam when we catch hold of him for a quick chat.

Dineshan, a labourer with a local construction company here, came to Oman in 2012 with the hope of turning around his family’s fortunes. After falling into debt in 2010, the young Indian hailing from Kerala was forced to quit his job as a carpenter and move to the Sultanate.

Hired by a local agent after he paid them Rs80,000 (RO474) as a labourer, the then 25-year-old flew into Oman with the dream of ‘saving
his family’.

“The grass is always greener on the other side,” he chants, before adding, “I was able to clear off our debt in about two years after coming here.”

“I sent every Riyal I got, save for RO10 per month, from my salary of RO135. I wouldn’t even buy a shawarma or Pepsi when I was hungry. Instead, I would cook the food with about 12 others. This only cost me about RO3 per month.

“I also haven’t bought anything for myself in the last eight years. Everything is for my parents, wife and son. This is what motivates me to work hard and earn the money, but at the expense of seeing them.”

Dineshan doesn’t own a smartphone. Instead, he relies on his friends when he has to call his family back home.

Passport confiscated

After a five-minute conversation, however, Dineshan cries: “I would like to go back home. It doesn’t have to be forever. I haven’t gone home since 2014. I miss Sanju (his wife).

Dineshan – whose voice is barely clear now – then reveals that his passport has been confiscated by his public relations officer and his leave requests have been rejected.

“In my contract, I can leave for a 30-day break after two years of service, but that is not the case in the company. All engineers and others can take leave, but why can’t we?” he asks, as we console him.

We then ask him if his company has paid him his dues, to which he exclaims: “No.”

“Five months’ salary is pending since 2015. But that’s the case with everyone. We first headed to the management after two months of not getting the salary, who told us that even they hadn’t received their salaries as our clients hadn’t paid the company.

“We waited for another three months before we started getting paid. But we’re yet to receive five months’ payment,” he adds, before walking away
in despair.

While Dineshan – and 70 of his fellow colleagues – remain silent about their ordeals, it begs us to ask how the non-payment of salaries has affected the lives of their families who depend on these poor workers.

This motivated us to dig deeper into the lives of these expatriate labourers who bear the brunt of the struggle in order to keep the progress ticking.

No respect

In Oman, there are over 2,100,249 expats currently (as of March 11, 2018), of which more than 1.8 million are employed by private or public firms. Expats from Bangladesh are still on top at 690,381 and is followed by Indians at 685,938.

While the numbers of labourers aren’t mentioned, it is safe to believe that the labour workforce largely comprises Asian expats, says Jamal al Balushi, an Omani national who has long been offering aid to expatriate labourers who work in his up and coming neighborhood in Al Khoud.

“Very little help is given to these poor labourers. Even their own fellow nationals don’t treat them with respect. I have seen a lot of people ignoring them and even walking right over them in places where these poor people rest.

“That is disrespect – and that attitude must change. We tend to forget that if these people don’t do their jobs, we are the ones that will be at a loss.

“What’s more saddening is that their bosses sometimes hold back payments. They forget that their employees who sweat blood literally to get the work done cannot eat or send back money to their families on time because of that.

“Once I had asked an Egyptian construction company owner who had taken up a project in my area why he hadn’t paid his staff. His reply was that the later he paid them, the more money they would have at the end of the month,” exclaims the 60-year-old, who is flabbergasted while narrating the incident.

“How much money can these guys save if their salaries are RO100?” he asks, as he shakes his head in disbelief.

A small light in an otherwise dark time for our friend Dineshan is his project manager (who wishes to remain unnamed) who has been providing him and a handful of others with food and covering their basic expenses. Albeit, it must be stated that even he remains unpaid till date.

12 hours of work a day

But the concerns raised by other labourers don’t just end with delayed payments. A great majority of labourers we spoke to highlighted concerns ranging from long working hours – with some alleging over 12 hours of work in a day, short breaks and no days off.

Zulfiqur Rahman, a Bangladeshi labourer currently working on a residential complex, complains about how the company forces them to work for eight hours on a stretch.

“We rarely get breaks,” says the labourer. “We don’t have rights and are treated like garbage. It’s getting hot here and we are tired by noon. All we have is time to eat our lunch and in 10 minutes we have to be back to the camp.

“By then our bodies ache. We’re currently in the process of laying the foundation and there’s no time for us to waste. But because we’re a small team, we have no option but to work long hours.

“We even work on our day off (Friday) and Saturday is already a working day for us,” he exclaims.

“We don’t know what to do and we don’t know who to talk to. We’re at the mercy of our project manager – who would make us work 24 hours if he could. He has no heart and respect for anybody,” he tells us, before rushing back to work, citing that he will fall in trouble if his boss finds out that he is talking to
the media.

Dangerous work sites

Walking around the construction site, which is blatantly open with no locks on the gates or warnings, we notice several violations with regards to the health and safety of the workers. Numerous workers are seen lying in the shade underneath a cement mixer and concrete mixer.

Also, those moving around the camp are seen to be bereft of hard helmets and boots.

The state of the workers lying on the floor with hard hats covering their faces to prevent direct exposure to the sun are distressing – and it prompted us to reach out to the project manager to ask if the labourers can be provided with a covered and air conditioned shelter for resting.

He immediately retaliated by asking us to leave the premises, while telling us that we were breaking the law by entering the camp. He then closed the gate shut.

To get to grips with what can be done in such scenarios wherein the labourers are deprived of basic facilities, we talked to a social worker of over 25 years in Oman, PM Jabir.

He says: “Some of these issues that you raise have been a concern over the last two decades of my existence here in Oman. But what I have found is that over time, the Ministry of Manpower has become the go-to organisation for such cases.

“It breaks my heart when I see the people suffering, but a lot of them need to know that there is a governing body (Ministry of Manpower)
that will take care of their requirements. Clean facilities with drinking water, proper sanitation and air conditioning are mandatory at all construction camps.”

Deportation fears

Another trepidation that has been haunting these migrant labourers is the chance of getting deported from Oman: The reason being the non-renewal of visas.

All our efforts to connect with labourers who were offering services without a valid visa was futile out of fear of the media, but a simple stroll across the Ruwi area will show you the strength and prevalence of the unlicensed labour community in Oman.

Just last week, news that the Ministry of Manpower had arrested and deported 138 expat workers and laborers in Al Buraimi governorate, broke waves. Late last year (August 2017), more than 99 labourers were deported from Oman for working illegally – and it’s only a matter of time before such stories hit the news again.

To all those afraid of approaching the legal authorities, PM Jabir urges that they take some step to avoid legal consequences.

“If someone cannot approach the Ministry of Manpower directly, then they can head to the mission department in their respective embassies. For instance, the Indian Embassy has a ‘Community Welfare Wing’ and the Bangladeshi Embassy has a ‘Labour Wing’ that will actively work with the Ministry of Manpower to sort out the issue.

“I’ve been doing my best to tell the people to approach these channels and avoid taking other steps (strike, continuing to work illegally, etc.).”

Ray of hope

But things will be taking a turn for the better, Shashwar tells Y. “We have proposed a new classification method that will bring things in line with the law.

“We at the Oman Society of Contractors have come up with a new classification system that will change the way the companies comply with the Omani laws. And one of the things we will focus on is the provision of workforce housing for the safety and well-being of
the labourers.

“We are in the final stages of this project – and we are developing the website now. The Ministry of Manpower will soon issue the decree and it will help us classify companies and manage hidden trade within this sector.

“The construction sector is divided into two segments: The medium-level companies and large-level companies.”

He discloses that most companies in the latter segment are compliant with Omani laws. These companies include those contracting with large government and private organisations.

“It is the smaller and medium-level companies – those that are involved in smaller projects like the construction of buildings and villas – that default the law. Most of the times, these companies are registered to an Omani and is run by an expat.

“So, what we see is an expat taking advantage of his expat workforce. And 99 per cent of the times we see a company breaking the law, it is with a company that belongs to this segment.

Despite that, Shashwar believes that the future is bright. “Our new classification system will make sure that steps are taken against companies that break the law. Our idea is simple: you must classify as a genuine company by following the basic parameters that is set by the
Ministry of Manpower.

“Else, they will inevitably be brought before the law.” 

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