Friday, Dec 09, 2016

Muscat: Mujeeb, an absconding Bangladeshi worker, queues every morning at 5am along with many other absconding workers in Hamriyah areas of Mutrah province in Oman’s capital Muscat for odd jobs everyday to put food on the table for their families back home.

Mujeeb absconded to earn more money, often making triple the amount he would earn from his legal employer. “I thought it was a quick way to earn more money by fleeing my employer like my friends,” Mujeeb told Gulf News.

In some months, Mujeeb earns as much as 250 riyals, but in others, he has to make do with 50 riyals depending on the available work opportunities everyday as tens of thousands of absconding workers from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan compete for the same odd jobs.

“It’s hard for me to continue this way. It was my mistake to leave my employer. I’m illegal now. I did it to make ends meet for my family back home as I’m the only breadwinner,” he said.

Under Oman’s laws governing foreign labour, each expatriate must be tied to an Omani sponsor and must work exclusively for him or her. A change of job requires approval of the sponsor.

Figures from the Ministry of Manpower showed that more than 60,000 workers fled their employers in 2015, representing 1.3 per cent of the 1.9 million expatriates registered in the country. Thousands of them were arrested by the joint inspection team of the Royal Oman Police (ROP) and the Ministry of Manpower.

Gulf News visited the area where absconding workers and expatriates who enter the country illegally gather waiting for daily work opportunities.

Most of them work in the construction sector for eight riyals per day, a sector they say is growing and therefore presents many opportunities. “It’s risky for us as labour inspectors can raid the premises anytime,” Iqbal, a Pakistani worker said.

Mujeeb and Iqbal absconded two years ago. They were supposed to work as camel keepers but they preferred to flee, according to them.

“The job opportunities dried up in the last four months. We have to wait for six hours on the streets waiting for someone to hire us,” said Iqbal, adding that he paid 1,300 riyals to a Pakistani agent to come and work in Oman. “I sold my father’s land to pay him but I ended up as an illegal worker,” said Iqbal.

Many foreign workers from South Asian countries who come to the Gulf find jobs through recruitment agencies in their home countries that charge them exorbitant fees, often going as high as a year’s wages. Desperate to find work and remit hard currency back home, many go into debt.

Many of the absconding workers pleaded for amnesty from the Omani government to go back home and put an end to their dilemma. “I had tried every possible way to get out of the country to no avail,” Iqbal said.

“It’s unbearable. I know it was our mistake but I hope Omani authorities announce soon an amnesty for illegal workers in the country so we can leave,” Iqbal said.

An expatriate who overstays in the country has to pay 20 riyals as visa charge at the airport immigration counter and 19 riyals to the Ministry of Manpower for every month he or she has remained in the country since the visa expired. The worker also has to pay 400 riyals if there is an absconding case against him.

In 2015, more than 19,000 illegal foreign workers applied for an amnesty to leave the country; many of them have been deported, according to the Ministry of Manpower.

Asked if there were any new plans for an amnesty, an official at the Ministry of Manpower said that there are no such plans now.

The amnesty only applies to absconding workers and those who have overstayed their visas. Infiltrators are not included. The previous amnesties were given in 2005, 2007 and 2010.

Ten thousand people applied for amnesty in 2010, according to the ministry. According to Omani media reports, there are around 40,000 Bangladeshis, 4,000 Pakistanis and 3,000 Indian undocumented workers in Oman.

Currently, expatriates form around 45.5 per cent of the total population, up from 38.9 per cent of the population in 2011 and 29 per cent in 2010.

The expatriate workforce in the country had reached 1,747,000, according to the National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI) figures.

Mujeeb did not opt for the 2015 amnesty as he was planning to continue working to support his family and pay loans. Both Mujeeb and Iqbal, however, say that they will be the first to apply for amnesty if the government announces it again.

The number of absconding workers is on the rise despite the authorities’ efforts to curb the trend by granting them amnesty. Hundreds of illegal workers and infiltrators are being arrested weekly nationwide.

Omani sponsors hoping to cash in on expatriate workers registered under them sometimes allow the employees to work on a freelance bases in return for a fee, often as low as 20 riyals. If the worker fails to pay, he or she risks being reported by the sponsor as an absconder.

Oman’s Labour Law Article 114 stipulates that whoever employs non-Omanis without having a licence will be punished with a fine of not less than 10 riyals and not more than 100 riyals. The amount of fine shall be multiplied proportionately with the number of such employees in whose respect the violations are committed. Such an employer shall, at his own expense, pay for his or her own repatriation. Further, the employer will not be allowed to bring into Oman any non-Omani employee for a period of not more than one year.

A non-Omani employee who works in the sultanate without a licence from the government department concerned, or works with any employer other than his or her sponsor shall be punished by imprisonment for a period not exceeding one month and punished with a fine not exceeding 100 riyals or by one of them,

The Central Bank of Oman revealed that expatriate remittances had increased by 1.1 per cent in the first half of this year, reaching more than 2.13 billion riyals. Expatriates remit more than 3 billion Omani riyals every year.

Fahad Al Mukrashi Correspondent

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