MUSCAT // Production in Oman's biggest industrial zone, home to more than 300 manufacturing plants, was brought to a halt yesterday when workers went on strike to demand better wages and benefits.
Hundreds of workers gathered from 6am in silent protest on the square of the Rusayl Industrial Estate, located about 60 kilometres from central Muscat, demanding that the minister of manpower hold talks with their representatives.
"He came over and said he would consider all our demands," Qassim al Jawhari, one of the protesters, said.
Their demands, apart from an increase in wages, include a two-day weekend instead of one, medical insurance, training and an opportunity for promotion at regular intervals.
Ali al Noobi, another protester, said: "We also want the hiring of expatriate workers to be limited to create more jobs for Omanis. We told the minister that the majority of the managers should be local people as well. At the moment, there are more foreign workers here than Omanis." There are no statistics available for the total number of workers in the industrial estate, but Mr al Noobi estimated that roughly 6,000 work in the sprawling compound, which houses small- to medium-sized manufacturing industries.
"I would say only about 40 per cent are Omanis. The rest are from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh," Mr al Noobi said.
The government sent the army with light weapons to the estate, but a government security officer said they were there solely to protect the manufacturing units.
A separate protest yesterday by private security guards blocked the road leading to Muscat airport. They, too, demanded higher pay. Up to 500 uniformed guards employed by private companies diverted traffic away from the airport, forcing some travellers to miss their flights.
"We are doing it here to force attention to the nation about our poor pay conditions," Khalid al Hassani, a protester, said.
The protest, which went on for four hours, was dispersed by police in the afternoon.
Jaffar Khan, an architect, said: "I missed my flight to Dubai today because of the long traffic jam."
Activists have held sit-ins for weeks in front of the Shura consultative council in Muscat, outside the governor's office in Salalah in the far south and in Sohar. Along with improved wages and more jobs, the demonstrators are calling for an elected parliament and a new constitution.
Sultan Qaboos, in power for 40 years, decided this week to cede some legislative powers to the partly elected Oman Council, an advisory body. At present, only the sultan and his cabinet can pass laws.
The government also said it would double monthly welfare payments and increase pension benefits.
On Tuesday, several hundred workers at the state oil firm, Petroleum Development Oman, demonstrated for higher wages at company headquarters and oil and gasfields, the first such stoppage at a Gulf energy firm since unrest swept the region.
Staff are also protesting outside firms including Oman International Bank, Oman Investment Finance and the government-owned InterContinental Hotel, where some guests were turned away.
This week protesters also demanded that the new police chief investigate sacked ministers for alleged corruption.