Oman's labourers suffer as midday rule flouted

The Omani government ordered construction firms to cease work from 12.30pm to 3.30pm until September, but activists say no penalty was set for breaches to the law.

MUSCAT // Companies appear to be ignoring the government's afternoon break rule because of a lack of inspections and vague penalties, putting labourers in danger of health risks in the summer heat, construction supervisors and human-rights activists say.

With temperatures currently soaring up to 50C, construction workers have collapsed with heat exhaustion. "The summer months are quite hard. Workers feel dizzy from the heat and fall, causing serious injuries to themselves. Most of the sites I know still get only one-hour break, from 1 to 2 pm, even after the manpower directive has been issued," Ram Lal, 42, a construction supervisor in the capital, said.

According to the meteorology office records, the average temperature since mid-June has been 44C during the day, with the mercury touching 50C on some days between 1pm and 3pm. To provide workers with some relief from the oppressive temperatures, the ministry of manpower issued a directive to construction companies in June that ordered work to cease from 12.30pm to 3.30pm at all sites until September. However, the directive did not set a punishment for violating the rule and officials have been vague about enforcement and penalties.

"Necessary legal and punitive action will be taken against those who fail to abide by the provisions," Saleh al Amri, the director of labour welfare in the manpower ministry, said in a statement. Before the order was issued, companies demanded workers to take a one-hour lunch break and resume work to six in the evening. According to Omani labour laws, workers must be paid overtime if they work more than eight hours in a day.

A majority of injuries to workers happen during the summer months, said Hussein al Lawati, 42, the general manager of Capital Manpower Services, a company that provides workers to construction firms. He urged the government to set specific penalty guidelines for offending companies and called for surprise inspections to construction sites. "The manpower ministry must issue another statement giving the detail of the punishment to offenders. Written warnings are not enough, but hefty fines and even the revoke of the business licences for persistent violators," Mr Lawati said.

He also urged the government to ask employers to train labourers to understand heat stress and the effects it has on their health and safety. "It is also important for them to understand how heat exhaustion can be prevented. So training must be made compulsory to workers to cope with heat stress," Mr Lawati said. Government safety inspectors said workers were also exposed to extreme high temperatures while working in enclosed workplaces that do not have air conditioning.

"Some of them work in warehouses, workshops and generator rooms that do not have cooling facilities. They get severely dehydrated, cramps and even suffer psychological problems," Ahmed al Mauli, a safety inspector at Muscat Municipality, a government agency monitoring the worker conditions, said. High-rise buildings are more prone to accidents during summer than other properties, said Raj Parekh, a construction consultant, because of the larger number of workers. "The high-rise building I am supervising has more than 70 workers, compared to only six workers in an average villa. We normally have five to seven workers fainting every month during the summer. We lost two last summer when they fell from the upper floors," Mr Parekh, who works for Al Hashmi Architectural and Consultancy, said. Most of the construction labourers in Oman come from South Asia, according to statistics from the manpower ministry. Out of the country's 900,000 foreign workers in the private sector, more than a third work in the construction sector. "Due to rising infrastructural projects in Oman, there is a sharp demand for construction workers. The number of accidents at these sites will increase as we bring in more of them every year," Mr Lawati said.

By the end of May, the ministry of manpower had registered 366,150 construction workers, an increase of 7.3 per cent compared to May 2009. Oman, buoyed by more oil exports and rising oil prices in the last two years, has stepped up spending to develop infrastructure such as road networks, dams, power plants, airports, schools and hospitals. All the construction companies, when contacted, said that their companies strictly follow the three-hour afternoon break rule.

"They would say that, wouldn't they? But anybody can drive past the construction sites to see workers toiling in the heat at 2.30pm or 3pm," Mr Lawati said. "They take advantage because labour inspectors do not do their job as they should."