Muscat: No proper documents. No proper job. No proper protection. A daily struggle just to find food.
They pay huge sums of money to "agents" back home and come here at any cost - even through unofficial channels.
They are the illegal ghost workers of Oman, and even with the odds stacked against them, still they come.
For many, it all goes wrong, quickly. Like Bikku Prasad, an Indian worker who is battling for life in a hospital after just three days at work, with no help or medical cover, as he is ‘undocumented’, or the hundreds caught daily in labour law violation raids.
Read here: Indian worker trapped ‘in limbo’ in Oman hospital
These workers risk everything to migrate because they can earn 10 times as much as they do back home. That money is then sent home to their families in some of the poorest parts of the world.
A year ago, 1,000 expatriate workers were caught in a raid in Hamriya, Muscat. Last week, thousands gathered at the same spot waiting to be hired for daily slave wages. Nothing has changed.
The raids seem to have made little difference in the cheap labour market.
Social workers and the Bangladesh Embassy have called for an amnesty so that workers can legalise their documents.
Hamriya is the go-to place if you want to hire cheap labour. The migrants know it, and so do the Omani businessmen, who hire this cheap labour. Even though hundreds of ‘free visa’ workers are arrested every week all over Oman, by 5am the streets of Hamriya are packed with hundreds of desperate workers queuing up to get picked to work on building sites around Oman.
On average, nine out of 10 workers are looking for agents to do work that is not listed on their labour cards. While some know they are breaking the law, others don’t think they are.
“We know that it is illegal, but we have come here after paying a huge amount of money for the visa back in our home country by pledging land and taking loans. We have to clear them and take care of our family. We are always under fear that we may be caught at the workplace, but there are no other options,” Shanthi Das, a worker from Bangladesh, said.
Das, like many others, had paid agents back in Bangladesh around OMR1,500 to get a visa, which he considers as his passport to wealth. “In my labour card, my designation is that of a salesman. But, I am not getting that job. Sponsors have told me that I am free to do any kind of job. I know electrical work. I go for that. However, it is not regular. I get work for around 15 to 20 days per month,” he added.
Das earns around OMR7 daily, out of which he has to buy food, pay rent, remit money to pay his loan and also pay his sponsor for the ‘free visa.’
Das, like many of his friends, pays OMR20 to his sponsor. “We can say that around 90 per cent (of workers) here are doing a different job than what is mentioned on their labour cards,” he added.
Mohammed Hassan, a friend of Das, who is also in Oman on a ‘free visa,’ said he cannot afford to default in the payments made to the sponsor.
“If we do, the sponsor will file an absconding case and we will land in trouble,” Hassan added.
Mohammed Shajid, in his 20s, Kamal Hassan, Amir Hassan, in his 40s, Ahmed Babar, in his 20s, and Hussain Muqbal, in his 30s, also narrated similar stories.
Afraid of raids
“We are afraid of raids, but we have landed here. We have to find work and earn some money,” Shajid said. He was lucky to find a job the day the Times of Oman (TOO) interviewed him.
Last week, a senior official from the Ministry of Manpower (MoM) told TOO that government raids to catch expats working with incorrect visas will be stepped up.
“The government is aware that the Labour Law violations are a little high, so the inspections are more frequent too. The number of expats is growing. Similarly, the violations are increasing. Sothe inspections will also be increased,” said Salem Al Saadi, an advisor to MoM.
Stabilising the market
According to the official, the government wants to stabilise the market with legal workers.
Article 114 of the Oman Labour Law states that a non-Omani employee, who works in Oman without a licence from the concerned directorate, or works with any employer, other than the employer who obtained a licence to bring him to Oman, shall be punished.
Additionally, any employer who wilfully allows any of his employees to work with another employer will also be punished.
Shahswar Al Balushi, chief executive officer, Oman Society of Contractors, said theTOO investigation has revealed that some are misusing the system.
“The existence of such a system persuades employers to hire cheap labourers,” Al Balushi said, adding that the association is in the process of classifying construction companies in Oman to regulate the industry.
“The process to categorise the companies is underway. It’s with the Commerce Ministry. We are expecting that by the end of this year it will be approved,” he said.
According to Al Balushi, by categorising the companies, they will be able to pinpoint who has a project and how many visas they need.
“This will streamline the procedure, rectify the system and clamp down on the ‘free visa’ system, which is also a threat for Omani job hunters,” he added.
Advice for workers
Meanwhile, a senior official from the Bangladesh Embassy in Oman said they have advised migrant workers to listen to the government, and not to their friends, on visa related issues.
“We always say to them that there is no such thing as a ‘free visa,’ but they fail to listen to us and eventually put their job prospects and future at risk,” Zahed Ahmed, the senior official from the embassy, said, adding that workers should perform only the job that is mentioned in their contract.
Mohammed Sanaulla, a Bangladeshi social worker in Oman, said although some people are coming through the proper channels, it is very unfortunate that many blue collar workers from Bangladesh come to Oman on a ‘free visa.’
“We would like to suggest to them to verify proper job details/job agreement before taking steps to come here in order to avoid severe consequences later, which may include jail terms, deportation, an absolute economic breakdown for their families, risking their life, as well as risking future of their family back home,” Sanaulla said.
Sanaulla added that it would be a blessing for the workers if the government announces an amnesty allowing the workers to correct their job status.
“It would be a blessing for workers and at the same time, announcing an amnesty would allowworkers to correct their job status, and will help streamline the job market too,” Sanaullanoted.
“When hundreds are arrested in raids for working illegally, I feel that announcing an amnesty is the need of the hour,” he added.
In a 2015 amnesty, around 7,300 Bangladeshis out of 23,186, who were registered during a sixmonth-long amnesty scheme, did not make use of the offer for amnesty.
Recent government data shows that as many as 130,511 expatriates are not registered.A monthly report from the National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI) also revealed that Oman’s population registered a growth of 2.6 per cent in the first quarter of 2016.
At the end of April, the 2.6 per cent rise in population from the same period last year, boost the Sultanate’s population to 4,428,946.
Expatriates constituted 45.5 percent of the total population. The total number of expatriates at the end of April rose by 4.5 percent to 2,014,348, up from 1,927,938 at the end of December last year.