International Workers’ Day and Oman

An Overview of Migrant Labor Conditions

The legal status of migrant workers, expatriates, in Oman remains one of the most challenging issues, wherein non-Omani workers continue to face clear discrimination compared to the national workforce. This discrimination encompasses various aspects such as wages, job security, and the legal status in the country in case of any dispute with the employer, among other issues. It’s worth mentioning that one of the main contributors to the poor legal and living conditions in Oman is the kafala (sponsorship) system. Although Omani authorities pledged to abolish it in 2020, it remains in effect to this day.

According to the National Centre for Statistics and Information, expatriates represent more than 43% of the total population, with their number exceeding 2.2 million, including more than 1.8 million constituting the expatriate workforce in the Omani market. This represents over 68% of the labour force in various sectors and markets.

In spite of Oman’s representations since 2020 to dismantle the Kafala system, characterised by its negative repute, the aforementioned legal framework remains operative. Violations against migrant workers in Oman vary from withholding wages, confiscating personal documents, imposing additional work not agreed upon in contracts, as well as the lack of job security, which often leads to dismissing workers without notice or providing their rights.  The demographic most adversely impacted by these transgressions comprises unskilled labourers or those engaged in remunerative positions not mandating specialised skills, notably domestic workers (including housemaids, agricultural labourers, and chauffeurs), as well as those within the construction sector.

The kafala system constitutes a legal framework delineating the contractual arrangement between migrant/expat workers and their employers. Its inception was driven by the objective of providing affordable and abundant labour during a period of substantial economic expansion. Advocates of this system contend that it fosters local business interests and contributes to overall economic development. Under this system, foreign workers are constrained from departing the host country without explicit consent from their employer. Additionally, unauthorised changes in employers, absent proper documentation releasing them from their prior contractual obligations, expose migrant workers to the risk of deportation. Notably, household workers, exempt from labour law protections, face a heightened vulnerability to exploitation and abuse by their employers.

In reference to domestic workers, notwithstanding official disavowals of irregularities, said cohort is subjected to a spectrum of violations, including but not limited to the confiscation of personal documentation, instances of sexual harassment, receipt of remuneration below acceptable thresholds or outright deprivation thereof, denial of leave entitlements, substandard accommodation, and arbitrary transfers of employment between sponsors without requisite consent. These transgressions emanate from Oman’s non-adherence to Articles 3 and 5 of the Domestic Workers Convention, coupled with a lack of consideration for International Labour Organization Convention No. 189, mandating member states to afford requisite protections to domestic workers and preclude them from exploitation, coerced labour, or any manifestation of harassment and violence.

Despite the fact that the Labour Law in Oman includes provisions for regulating the employment of non-Omanis in the second chapter titled “Regulating the Employment of Non-Omanis,” it seems, based on the complaints received by the OCHRD, that the law does not cover low-skilled workers or those in professions that do not require high qualifications. The OCHR has received complaints from domestic workers related to sexual harassment, rape, termination of employment contracts without notice, or changing sponsors without their consent.

The country accommodates a substantial population of female migrant/expatriate workers originating from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and Uganda, primarily involved in domestic occupations. Unfortunately, these individuals frequently encounter various transgressions, including but not limited to sexual harassment, instances of rape, abrupt termination of employment contracts, and unauthorized changes in sponsors without their explicit consent. Despite efforts by certain affected parties to seek intervention from authorities such as the police or relevant departments within the Ministry of Labour, no legal measures are instituted against the sponsors or labour recruitment agencies involved.

 Labour Union Activity:

Article 108 of the same law allows workers the right to establish labour unions to safeguard their interests, defend their rights, and represent them in public meetings, provided that these unions enjoy independent legal personality. Additionally, the law (Article 111) prohibits the dismissal of any worker from labour union representatives due to their labour and union activities.
However, the inclusion of non-Omani workforce in unions remains a source of concern for many workers, according to sources from some unions. Immigrant workers are apprehensive about joining any union due to fears of unjust termination, particularly as numerous cases of dismissal have been purportedly linked to performance-related reasons or the financial difficulties of the company. According to sources at the OCHRD, instances of termination have occurred specifically because of their union membership, especially for those who actively oppose any unfair practices in the workplace.

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