Before leading a workshop on migrant worker issues for the Oman Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Muscat last weekend, I sat down with Beate Andrees from the ILO Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labor (which sponsored the event) to consider, “What would success look like?” In a country whose labor force is largely composed of semi- and unskilled expatriate workers (around 80 percent of whom hail from India), we concluded that just having a workshop that got business representatives in the sultanate to engage in a discussion—any discussion—about this topic would be a major achievement.
Reflecting now on the lively conversations that covered everything from international conventions on forced labor to how much employers pay recruitment agencies on an annual basis, I can honestly say that the workshop was a success. But I also came away wondering how we can translate the discussion into practical next steps, particularly for SMEs in the region.
The majority of companies in Oman are family-owned SMEs (as they are in other Gulf states), and their governance structures are opaque. Business is carried out on a handshake over a cup of Arabic coffee. When we talk about good practice in the recruitment and employment of migrant workers, the response is often that these good practices are “a given.” Why would we even broach such a topic? We are told that the heart of the problem lies in migrant origin countries, where employees are first recruited by unscrupulous agents. The problems, these business owners counter, do not lie with migrant destination countries like Oman.
But in Oman, some migrant laborers do indeed experience violations of their rights through issues such as contract substitution, lack of access to grievance mechanisms, or document holding. As Andrees pointed out, “If there wasn’t a problem, we wouldn’t even be here discussing the topic.”
Employers do not necessarily undermine migrant worker rights willfully. They do so unwittingly in order to maintain a “business as usual” approach. For example, with regard to document holding, they say workers often want their passports held by their employer “for security reasons.” Employers themselves are only too willing to oblige; the migration sponsorship system is such that if a worker overstays his or her visa, the employer is blamed and fined.
Changing the prevailing system will not be easy and requires greater cooperation among governments representing migrant origin and destination countries. Employers are also clearly looking for more government intervention in addition to tools to help them choose trustworthy recruiters. Above all, they are looking for leadership inspiration in a region that is a tinderbox right now. If ever there was a time to start talking about these issues and gain traction, it is now.