Oman’s visa ban on expats has forced many to return home while cutting the unemployment rate of the Sultanate’s graduates. But for business owners, staying competitive means hiring and keeping employees with skills and experience. And in a globalised, free-market economy shouldn’t they hire whomever they choose, anyway? Team Y assesses how the government’s move is working, and examines if it’s at a price worth paying.
Visa ban to be prolonged for another six months in Oman’, ‘Visa ban for certain professions in Oman extended’, and ‘Expats cannot work these jobs in Oman now’.
These are just a few headlines from July this year, when – as you would have known – Oman decided to extend its visa ban on expat employees working across certain sectors in the Sultanate.
The news was an unprecedented move that dented the hopes of several expats who had considered a move to Oman to further their careers – but at the same time, offered a glimmer of hope to those Omanis who had been waiting for a job for more than a year.
This is what embodies the pain, suffering and sorrow of the tens of thousands of young people and adults seeking jobs in the country – be it an Omani or a migrant worker.
It is indeed a double-sided coin but one that can make or break one’s career.
Despite all the mutual respect maintained among Omanis and expats living here in the Sultanate, the job market, it seems, is where the line is drawn.
At least that’s what Mitchell*, an Australian expat, seems to think. He resigned from his promising gig as a broadcast electronic technician in Dubai to move to Oman.
“It’s [the visa ban] shocking,” he says in a telephone conversation with Y; the frustration is evident in his tone.
“I’ve been living in the GCC for 15 years now, and I had just come to a point in life when I decided to settle down and save up for my retirement. The idea was to come to Oman and spend a good five years before retiring and moving back to my wife’s home in the Philippines.
“So, when I received the contract from my employer, I was ecstatic. The overall package was handsome and I’d even be paid for my accommodation. I didn’t even think twice before signing it.
“Soon, I handed over my resignation at my work in Dubai – and I was even given a going-away party,” he tells us.
But little did he know that Oman had other plans up its sleeve.
The company’s intention of providing Mitchell with a work visa banked on the government’s decision to lift a six-month long ban that had been effected early in January 2018 on expats working in certain professions in the country.
However, Oman didn’t budge. And on June 24 this year, the ministerial decision was made to extend the ban for another six months, starting on July 30. This meant that Mitchell, like several other expats who had been promised jobs in Oman, couldn’t come to work legally on an employment visa.
The ban, which as of this August, has been in effect for eight months, initially came to light in January, when 87 professions in 10 sectors – starting from the Information and Technology to media, and even the architecture and aviation sectors – were banned from being handed over to expats.
The hiring freeze came into effect following the ministerial decree 2018/38, which was issued by the Minister of Manpower Abdullah bin Nasser Al Bakri.
“This tore me apart,” the 51-year-old expat says. “Everything had been sorted – and all that stood between me and this job was the visa. Who would have thought that this would be the reason I wouldn’t get to work in Oman?”
“The implications of this will definitely be seen in Oman, as they’re closing the door on several skilled workers who can help raise the bar here,” he explains.
Today, Mitchell cannot vent his frustrations or take legal action against the Omani employer since he was never legally in Oman and never began his service for the company.
As per company policy, he only becomes a legal employee from the day he starts work.
So, today, he too, like thousands of other expats, are limited to sharing their views on social media; the main ones being LinkedIn and Twitter, which have a considerable international reach.
This is also how we came across Mitchell before we set up an interview.
Despair, it seems, is what forced him to post negative comments on social media.
He then explains: “This isn’t something that anyone should go through; quitting one’s job in the belief that another one is waiting for them isn’t something you can believe in this part of the world.
“At my age, one shouldn’t have to go through such an upsetting scenario. It’s now highly likely that I may never get placed in a full-time job again. And more so, I don’t think I can ever trust an employer again.
This is a common voice on social media – as several expats, some of whom have been let go from companies in Oman without a No-Objection Certificate (NOC) on the pretext of the visa ban.
Our source at the Ministry of Manpower (MoM) who wishes to remain unnamed, however, debunks our findings: “While the ban is in place, it doesn’t affect anyone who is already working here. So, if anyone has been let go, it’s because the company has made use of their (the employees’) ignorance on the matter. They could have filed a complaint to us for an enquiry into the matter.
“If you have a visa and are working as a life insurance agent (which is one of the banned professions), then you can still renew your visa at the end of your two years. It’s only for those who are newly migrating to Oman or are looking to switch jobs.
“We need to give the Omanis a chance to work for their country and also prove themselves. They, after all, are the children of the nation and will remain even when the expats finally decide to end their services
“And when they call out for our help, we need to extend our hands.”
In statistics released by the MoM in September, 2017, nearly 60,000 college graduates were looking for jobs. Of the number, it is also believed that several had been waiting for a job for more than 12 months.
All of this now takes us to the other side of the matter: how expats are given preference over Omanis in private companies.
Mubashir* was one of several hundred Omanis involved in a peaceful demonstration outside the MoM office in January, 2018.
His demands were simple: he wanted a job in as an electronics engineer in the construction industry.
The 24-year-old Sultan Qaboos University graduate says: “I had been looking for a job since July 2016. I began my search by applying on the manpower website for a government job. A few months into the search, I realised that I wouldn’t get a call to the public sector due to my lack of experience.
“So I began applying on various web portals of private companies and on LinkedIn. I also tried using my cousins’ help to secure a job – but to no avail.
“By September, 2017, my father had retired from his service too. And it was then up to me to look after my family. I began by helping my brother-in-law in his furniture shop but that was only earning me a meagre RO150.
“And it was only when I got a message on Twitter that a peaceful demonstration would be held at the ministry when I picked up my CV and degree certificate and headed there.
“Everything was as per order at the ministry, and they even assured us that steps were being taken to help us procure jobs.”
Not long after, the government announced that it would “create 25,000 jobs for Omanis”. No further details were revealed after that – but in January 2018, the visa ban came into effect.
But did it work? Initial analysis of the data seems to suggest so: in a mere three months, the MoM hit its initial target of 25,000 jobs.
Even Mubashir, after 18 months of waiting struck down his first job as an engineer in a private firm. His salary – RO600.
Our ministry source says: “Our stats showed that a total of 24,945 Omanis found work after the ban on hiring expats. Astonishingly, all of these were in the private sector too.”
This is great news considering that unemployment among Omani youth aged between 15-24 stood at 48.7 per cent in 2017, as per figures released by the World Bank. This had ranked Oman as a nation with one of the highest rate of unemployed graduates in the GCC region.
“We hit 97 per cent of our target in the very first quarter after beginning the six-month visa ban (January to June). So, in order to bridge any gap that was left, we decided to further enforce it for another six months (July 2018 to January 2019),” our source adds.
Omanisation grew too: in the private sector it increased to 12.1 per cent in 2017, from 11.4 per cent in 2015, according to MoM data. It’s worth noting that these statistics were revealed before the aforementioned visa ban on expats.
But even as the Sultanate shows some progression in Omanisation, some believe that there is a crisis looming within the community: the hiring of staff, irrespective of quality. In short, even Omani businessmen claim they now have to hire locals who lack the necessary skills and experience.
Ayman*, the owner of an architecture and interior design firm in Oman says: “I began my company back in 2012 so I’d consider myself a newcomer to the field.
“We were initially a team of 12 – of which three were Omanis and nine were expats. But, by about 2015, the pressure of hiring more Omanis began to mount on us. As per the MoM, we had more expats than Omanis – and that meant we were constantly under the radar.
“By 2016, we weren’t allowed any more work permits, so we couldn’t hire experienced expat workers when we most needed them.
According to Shahswar al Balushi, head of Tanfeedh labour market lab and the chief executive officer of the Oman Society of Contractors, this has been the norm for companies that don’t maintain the ministry mandated Omani-expat ratio.
In an exclusive interview with Y, he says: “The Ministry of Manpower is keeping a very close eye on companies and is making sure that they are keeping up with the targets of Omanisation that has been mandated.”
Ayman concurs: “We had to hire two Omanis last year in order to get back our permits.”
His frustrations, nonetheless, stem from the fact that, despite hiring Omanis, he cannot hire any expat architects at all because of the new visa ban.
This, inevitably, led to a problem. Because the Omani staff weren’t as well-versed with international designs as their expat counterparts from the rival companies were, they couldn’t compete.
“We lost out on several tenders,” the Omani businessman says, before adding that he pays the local staff on average RO900, while the expats only earn RO550.
However, expats at his firm are entitled to medical insurance, yearly flight tickets, and other perks that Omani staff don’t receive.
The basic salary of an Omani currently stands at RO325, but the amount must be incremented based on their qualifications and work experience. On the other hand, there is no minimum wage for expats in the Sultanate.
“Why should we – the small companies that struggle to stay afloat in Oman – be forced to hire fresh-from-the-college Omani staff?” he asks.
When we pose this question to our source at the MoM, we’re met with a stony silence.
All of this means, small- and medium-scale enterprise (SME) owners are now having to let their expat staff go to maintain the local staff that they’re forced to hire.
During our research on LinkedIn, we stumble upon an expat worker’s story: “I had been working with (company name withheld) for 22 years. As the chief accountant of the firm, there wasn’t a day that I would give anything less than 100 per cent.
“I saw the company grow from eight employees in 1996, to 145 in 2018. But I was let go from the position because the company ‘has too many expats in the accounts department’.
“We, the experienced lot, were earning a salary lesser than what Omanis 10 years’ younger than us were raking in. And it’s funny, because it was us who were sanctioning their salaries – and we knew that we were working harder than them.
“But the budget cut happened, and I was let go. The company said that their hands were tied and that their only option to stay alive was to let go of a senior staff member. Otherwise, they had to hire two Omanis to maintain the company’s ‘Omanisation ratio’.
“Sadly, another one of my other expat colleagues will be losing her job sometime over the next six months too – my last task was to prepare her termination letter. She doesn’t know about that.
“Well, onwards and upwards. What else can I do,” he says as he ends his post.
We raise the case with Shahswar. He explains: “What we’re trying for here with the visa ban is a sustainable Omanisation programme.
“In this context, sustainable means keeping as many of the resources [Omanis and expats] safe while also renewing businesses so that they can overcome this tough period of economic downturn.
“A cloud of economic instability still prevails here in Oman and we’re hoping for some relief over the next two or three quarters.
“We had seen the worst from, say, the end of 2016 and beginning of 2017 to the mid-2018, and this has resulted in about 70,000 expats having to leave the country. So, we cannot really pin the blame on the visa ban alone.
“The economy isn’t allowing these companies to recruit any staff – let alone expats.
“Throughout 2017, a total of 55,000 Omanis were recruited in the construction sector alone, and that has now increased to 57,000 today.
“While this shows a growth in the Omanisation rate, the shift is still rather slow,” he says, further asserting how the expat visa ban would have ideally shown better results if the economy was stronger.
“You don’t simply bring in a law – you analyse it and look at how it will affect the market. And if the positives outweigh everything else, then it goes in place. At the end of the day, we want to bring in sustainable growth within the sectors that the law focuses on.
“For example, areas such as mechanical, civil, electronic engineering, etc. are all sectors in which a lot of Omanis are prevalent, of which several are also looking for jobs. This was a factor we took into consideration when I had a discussion with the MoM.
“But the law did come in a bit late and at the wrong time.
“Still, we need to ask ourselves why this has come into place. And for that we need to look at which sectors this law is governing.”
“The government now needs to talk to local clients here and set up a ground in which they’re ready to hire Omanis. Some of these clients ask for Omanis with 15 and 20 years of experience in their fields, and it’s incredibly difficult to find such people.
“This is where we need to alter our thinking. We need to give our fresh graduates and budding workers opportunities too. That’s how they will grow and gain more experience.
“We will reap the benefits of what we sow today a few years from now.
Shahswar understands how expats are preferred over Omanis in some private companies.
He says: “Up to an extent, we need to work towards making Omanis attractive.
“As is the case with everyone – there are good and bad workers. And some of these bad apples tarnish the name of the whole community.”
He gives an example: “In the case of expats, hardworking employees are rewarded while those who are unproductive will be terminated. That’s the basic right of a company. Fearing that, the expats – even the lazy ones – will change their mindset and try harder.
“However, in the case of Omanis, even though they can be let go, they will need to proceed to the court
“So, there’s a general thought that it’s harder to terminate them. In the coming years, only companies that are performance-driven will survive. And Omanis must strive to become a part of the team that achieves for their company.
“Nobody’s wants to hire an Omani – or any other individual – who doesn’t put in hard work.”
But all of this begs us to ask the question: The visa ban and the prevailing NOC system – is it really bringing in the desired effects to the table?
Our source at the MoM says: “Results? Yes. A radical change in employee management? No. We’re far from it. Each of these laws comes with its own perks and flaws.
“As Shahswar rightly said, it has come in place a little too late and at a time when companies are trying to survive.
“They’re not going to let go of their existing resources and hire new staff. So, they’ll simply continue to do what they do; hire cheap expat labour and keep them under the radar.
“We come across such cases frequently.
“It’ll almost always be a no-visa transaction. It’s illegal, but business owners see it as a cost-effective option.
“At the end of the day, it’s basically Darwinism in action. The big players in the market will continue to survive, while the smaller ones will slowly wither down or dissolve away and into the history books.
“Don’t be surprised if the ban stays on after January 2019.”
*Names changed to protect identities
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