SAMUEL KUTTY –
MUSCAT, July 29 –
For thousands of migrant labourers, mainly unskilled, life is a nightmare with long hours of work and remuneration that is not in accordance with the nature of their job in the booming construction sector.
In some cases, they don’t get even a single day’s rest, even though the law mandates two weekly offs or compensation in lieu of the day of work.
Withholding of wages is said to be rampant, all because of the unlicensed labour suppliers or middlemen liaising with contracting companies.
Most of the workers that the Observer spoke to, said they arrived in the country on the so-called free visa — although no such thing exists in Oman — after paying huge sums of money to agents back home.
These workers, who are mostly from rural areas in South Asian countries, have been lured into selling their land or borrowing money from private lenders on expectations of finding more money in the Sultanate.
Some workers said they haven’t been home for years.
Sirajuddin is one among hundreds of hapless workers who gather in Hamriya, where agents arrive for the so-called ‘recruitment’.
“We get job offers but the wages are less and not in commensurate with the work we do,” he said.
According to him, wages for a full day of work are in the range of RO 3 to RO 4, sometimes more, sometimes less, for those who work with sub-contractors.
“With such meagre income, we are not able to send money home. Our loans are accumulating,” said Sirajuddin, who works as a helper.
Workers in the construction sector are the worst-hit. Their agony increases in July and August when the mercury hovers around 50 degrees Celsius.
An agent in Hamriya said he has enough manpower — skilled and unskilled — that can be supplied any time and at any place at a price much higher than what he pays workers.
The modus operandi of these labour suppliers is to reach an agreement with companies that outsource manpower from the ‘open market’.
They operate in the shadows of the law, unregulated but visible at most parts of the city, as demand for workers who do odd jobs is increasingly becoming high.
“Many large companies do not have enough workers to meet their requirement and seek to outsource workers. Though these firms make regular payments to manpower suppliers, the latter do not the same to workers,” said Barkatullah, who is familiar with the issue.
Oman’s construction sector is the largest employer in the country, providing jobs to around 750,000 people, of which 55,000 are Omanis and the rest expatriates.
According to Oman’s Labour Law, it is mandatory to give a weekly break of not less than two days after five consecutive days of work.
The recent amendments to the Labour Law set the maximum working hours at nine hours per day and 45 hours per week.
Labourers may be asked to work overtime if it is required, provided the total working hours do not exceed 12 hours a day. A person working overtime is entitled to overtime payment equal to his basic salary per hour.
However, most of these workers are not eligible for those facilities as they have arrived in the country on ‘free visas’.
“Some sponsors, in connivance with unscrupulous agents, provide these visas to expat workers for a fee, but give neither work nor salary. Apart from finding out jobs, these casual workers have to pay an annual visa charge to their respective sponsors,” said Barkat.
Till 2009, only employees used to be punished if they were caught working outside the jurisdiction of their job profile.
However, a Royal Decree recently amended the Labour Law and made employers also accountable.
SAMUEL KUTTY –