Oman's Shura Council tries to defuse oil protests

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 05, 2012 6:11 AM
Oman's Shura Council tries to defuse oil protests

By Saleh al-Shaibany

MUSCAT (Reuters) - Oman's consultative Shura Council has launched a drive to speed up reforms of labor laws after strikes by oil workers in the Gulf Arab state in the past two months demanding higher pay and better working conditions.

Oman, which gets 70 percent of its revenue from the oil sector, has detained more than 30 people in recent weeks following protests that some blame on the government's failure to deliver jobs promised after massive protests last year.

Up to 400 oil workers downed tools at state oil fields in May to push for better pay and pensions. More strikes broke out in June, mainly among employees of private contractors working in the oil sector, labor union officials said.

The strikes were the biggest Oman, a Western ally, has seen since last year's protests against corruption and unemployment triggered by "Arab Spring" uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

The 84-member Shura Council, an elected body that mainly advises the government on key legislation, this week discussed proposals to reform labor laws, including provisions aimed at bolstering private sector oil workers' rights.

"We are trying to change the laws for oil workers to improve their working conditions. After all, the oil industry is contributing to our economy," a Shura Council member, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

The council's recommendations include extending regulations barring employees from working outside in the summer when the temperature tops 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit). These regulations, which allow workers to stop work from 12:30 to 15:30, do not apply to oil sector workers.

The council is also pushing to ensure that labor courts speed up rulings on disputes between workers and employers.

The council has few legislative powers and its recommendations need government approval to be implemented but political analysts said the proposals were likely to be accepted.

"The Shura Council's influence in the government is growing since seven of its former members now serve in the cabinet after (Sultan Qaboos bin Said) gave them powerful portfolio posts at the height of the protests (in) April last year," Hareb Shikeli, a political commentator, told Reuters.

MEDIATION

Council members are also meeting with private oil companies trying to defuse future strikes and urge firms to improve their working conditions in Oman which sits on the Strait of Hormuz, route for over a third of global seaborne crude exports.

Disgruntled oil workers, who are employed mainly by private companies, have called for equal wages and pensions to those employed by the government.

Last month oil companies sacked 413 workers who protested over pay, working conditions and pensions, but they were reinstated a week later when the Shura Council intervened.

"The Shura Council is acting as a mediator between oil workers and their employers," Salim Ali al Kaabi, deputy chairman of the Shura Council, said in a statement.

"That will lead to the establishment of clear laws to regulate the rights of oil workers, and clear cut rules of labor court to improve the relationship between workers and companies."

Labor union leaders would not comment on the Shura Council's plans for new labor laws for the oil industry.

Omani activists say anger has been on the rise in recent months, with strikes in the oil, education and health sectors.

Oman's sultan - in power for 42 years and the longest-serving Arab head of state since the fall of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi last year - promised thousands of jobs and unemployment benefits in response to last year's unrest.

(Editing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith)