'Like slave labour': Oman imposes strict punishments to curb human trafficking

Sponsors are charging former employees fees to stay in Oman and work illegally in other roles

People walk on the waterfront near a yacht for Oman's Sultan Haitham bin Tarik Al Saidat in Muscat on February 21, 2020. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP)

Oman introduced hefty fines and heavy sentences to protect jobless expatriates from being exploited by their employers this week, the Oman News Agency reported.
The government has imposed fines of up to 150,000 rials ($475,000) and introduced jail terms of up to 15 years for human trafficking offenders, an increase from the previous punishments of three years imprisonment and a 7,000 rial fine.
But analysts say it is hard to identify offenders since expatriates are allowed by their Omani sponsors to go underground to fend for themselves.
"Failed Omani business owners, due to the pandemic problems, allow their foreign employees to seek all kinds of jobs all over the country," Ibrahim Al Wahaibi, a former Labour Ministry official said.

“Legally, the expatriates are still registered as their employees in the Ministry of Labour but now work independently,” he added.

Though this system may seem to benefit expatriate workers, in reality exploitation abounds.

For many, in return for their relative freedom, they must pay their sponsors monthly fees to maintain their status while being exploited and underpaid in their new jobs. Due to their new work being illegal, the issue ofter flies under the radar Mr Al Wahaibi said.

It is kind of slave labour to let them struggle on their own during this dangerous pandemic

Ramesh Ayyapan, 36, is an Indian car electrician who has been in Oman for six years. He was released by his sponsor five months ago after the workshop he was working for shut down last September.
"It has been very hard for me. I asked my sponsor to keep me in Oman. He asked me to pay him a monthly payment of 50 rials ($125) per month. I thought it was not much until I realised working independently is not easy,"

“People take advantage of my status by underpaying me. It is almost like a slave labour,” Mr Ayyapan said.

In one incident, he said he performed the electric rewiring of a five bedroom villa for only 120 rials ($300), a job that would normally cost 450 rials ($1,125).
But sponsors say they are helping their employees to make ends meet at difficult times.
"The government calls this human trafficking and I don't understand why. We ask them for money because they want to stay in the country. We don't force them. Yes, they don't get paid enough but that's not our problem," an Omani who closed his car repair workshop in Muscat said on condition of anonymity.
But Mr Hussein Wahaibi, a gardener from Bangladesh who has to work illegally for 12 hours a day, said it was both "immoral" and "illegal" to charge employees money who no longer work for their sponsors.
"These sponsors must send their former employees back home when they close their businesses and not collect money instead. It is both immoral and illegal. It is kind of slave labour to let them struggle on their own during this dangerous pandemic," Mr Wahaibi, said.