Muscat: It is generally believed that trade unions in Oman are mostly ceremonial and that most of them lack the influence to produce any significant changes to the working rights of their members.
The General Federation of Oman Trade Unions (GFOTU) oversees the creation of workers' unions in the Sultanate, but many members of the individual trade unions remain in the dark regarding the legal framework that governs their working rights.
There are some 70 labour unions in the country, and to apply to join one, people must register with the Ministry of Manpower.
The Ministry of Manpower has the right to reject the creation of any company's labour union if the "application does not meet the requirements." Hence, the state maintains firm control while monitoring all trade unions in the country. For example, the unions' activities are restricted by the requirement that labour leaders notify the Ministry of Manpower at least one month in advance of union meetings.
Permission for strike
By law, labour union members cannot organise strikes whenever they wish. The procedure to organise a strike is cumbersome since it must be supported by the majority of the workers and employers must be notified well in advance.
Hence, strikes in Oman, unlike in most other countries, cannot be instantaneous. However, the concession to permit the establishment of labour unions has paid off in a certain way.
The minimum wage has been increased twice in two years and a compulsory annual increment for everyone has been established. But in the early years of their creation, the labour unions still operated nervously, with their leaders unsure of how best to represent the rights of their members.
Many trade-union members have already noticed the weaknesses of their leaders too.
These weaknesses are mainly ascribed to the imperfection of the legal framework that creates laws to govern the unions.
The leaders are often senior managers in their respective companies and often represent the interests of their employers and not of their members. Weak union leadership in the early years has denied the country some much-needed industrial militancy.
For example, with regard to the recent demands made by the workers of airlines and oil and gas companies, employers from both industries refused to budge and deliberately allowed the strikes to continue.
Why? Because they had the luxury of employing a large number of expatriate workers who could work double shifts to compensate for the loss of hours caused by striking Omani personnel.
The Omani workers had not considered this carefully manoeuvred trump card before they put down their tools, but the message was painfully received by the protestors.
This means employers in crucial industries, including hospitals, will not nationalise critical positions in case Omanis decide to walk away from their jobs for any reason. Hence, a strike will not critically disable their operations, and it would prove pointless to make another attempt.
This calls into question the unity between Omanis and their expatriate colleagues in the same company. It proves that the best interests of employers alone are served by making sure there is no unity between the two sides.
This phenomenon clearly demonstrates the inexperience of labour-union members who thought they could call the shots within the ranks of Omanis and sideline their expatriate colleagues.
The Omani workers now know that it is the expatriates who have the capacity to severely cripple an industry's operations if they go on strike. In other words, it is the foreign workers who need to bare their teeth if nationals want their demands to be met.
However, for Omanis to become the "brains" behind strikes, they need to convince their expatriate colleagues to overcome the fear factor. Employers will use the usual intimidation methods of terminating the contracts of expatriate workers if they put down their tools.
In light of this fact, if they want their voices to be heard, Omanis must work to change the general attitude that expatriates come to Oman to work and not to strike.
Integration of expats
To make expatriates feel more comfortable, trade unions should request the Ministry of Manpower to include foreign workers in the working committee of the GFOTU.
They should also be represented in the individual labour unions. Trade unions will never have any credibility if they continue to be an all-Omani affair.
The successful integration of both Omanis and expatriates would create a formidable force that employers would find hard to crack.