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Community groups struggle to meet rising needs among Oman's migrant workers

On May 2, 2020

“We’re working 24 hours a day, and it’s still not enough to reach people,” a volunteer with a migrant community association in Oman told  “People are calling at all hours of the day.” 

Like other Gulf states, Oman’s migrant worker population has been hit hard by the economic fallout of the Covid-19 crisis. Migrant workers account for about 45% of Oman’s 4.5 million population, and about 70% of its workforce.  Among those most affected have been daily wage earners, like barbers, hairdressers, and repairmen, and small owners who can no longer afford food and rent. Mobility restrictions have hindered relief efforts, with special passes required to travel in areas under strict lockdown, and the suspension of all public transportation and taxi services. 

Funding is also an issue, both due to restrictions on raising donations and lost income amongst the usual donors. Local hypermarkets and businesses are pitching in support, but they too have been affected by the crisis.  Embassies have provided some food aid through community organisations, but not nearly enough to meet needs, according to a source. 

“It’s mostly workers helping other workers.” 

Not all workers have facilities to cook food, further complicating food distribution. Dry food kits are easier to provide, as they are cheaper and can be delivered less frequently, but not a feasible option for all.  

While Oman’s Supreme Committee suggested that landlords waive rent or suspend evictions, this has not been made mandatory. One charity MR spoke to noted that many requests for shelter came from women migrants. Shelter is an especially difficult need to meet, as embassy shelters are often already full, and accepting any new workers would risk spreading infection. Some embassies have secured new temporary shelters to house these workers.

While workers from India, Nepal, and Bangladesh in centralised areas do have community groups and associations providing support, it's unclear how workers in remote areas and those from other countries are faring. Though the groups we spoke provide relief to workers of all nationalities, they rely on word-of-mouth to reach those in need and in general are less connected to workers from other countries, and from Africa in particular. 

Additionally, Oman's porous border with the UAE is a hotspot for trafficking in ordinary times, meaning that there are likely a large number of undocumented workers  – many of them female domestic workers –  with no access to a  support network.

Healthcare disparities 

The Omani government provides free testing and treatment to all residents, including those without insurance. However, treatment for nationals and migrants differs; according to sources, while nationals who test positive for Covid19 are immediately brought into isolation, workers are told to quarantine at home until or unless their conditions worse. Non-nationals account for 63% of the roughly 2,300 registered cases in Oman as of 23 April. 

Medical needs unrelated to Covid19 are also being affected; migrants who suffer from chronic illnesses like diabetes and high blood pressure relied on cheaper medication from India, particularly low in-come migrant workers who are not covered by health insurance schemes. Medicines are more expensive in Oman and are now even more out of reach since many workers no longer have an income.  With no flight services from India and no wages to purchase expensive medicines in Oman, workers are desperately relying on community support. According to sources, hospitals and other care facilities have been refusing to treatment to workers with non-COVID19 ailments. 

Protections for national workers

Oman announced a re-opening of some businesses on 28 April, among them money exchanges, vehicle repair workshops and rental offices, and certain shops. But businesses impacted by the economic crisis may not be able to re-open or re-open with their full staff.   

Oman has phased in strict Omanisation policies over the last several years, which restrict the hiring of non-nationals in several sectors. The Covid19 response similarly seeks to protect the national workforce; private firms cannot fire Omani nationals, but may only place them on full paid leave. Once their annual leave is exhausted, companies may reduce their hours and commensurate salary for a maximum of three months, beginning 1 May, once their annual leave is exhausted. 

In contrast, in a scheme similar to the UAE, a number of measures can be taken with non-national employees, including reduced pay (with ‘mutual agreement), paid leave, and termination. Companies may also assign employees to another employer.  Salary reductions will only be considered legal if companies notify the Ministry of Manpower and can prove that they have been significantly impacted by the pandemic. Companies must also ensure that terminated employees have received all amounts owed to them before leaving Oman. Employers will bear responsibility for the costs of their repatriation when flights resume.

Like other Gulf states, construction sites remain operational. Workers continue to be transported on full buses,  in and out of crowded labour accommodations with no additional protection or testing. 

This is just the beginning and the fallout of Covid19 is likely to continue impacting businesses and their employees over the next year, as projects are suspended, salaries reduced, and workers are let go. It is critical that companies who do terminate contracts do not default on end-of-service benefits that workers have accrued.