Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law provides for limited freedom of speech and press, but authorities did not always respect these rights. Journalists and writers exercised self-censorship.
Freedom of Speech: The law prohibits criticism of the sultan in any form or medium, as well as any “provocative propaganda to undermine the prestige of the state,” electronic communication that “might prejudice the public order or religious values,” and “defamation of character.” Therefore, it is illegal to insult any public official or private citizen. Authorities have prosecuted individuals for writing about the sultan in a way the government perceived to be negative. In January 2018 the government issued a new penal code that generally increased maximum penalties for crimes related to “undermining the state.” International human rights organizations expressed concern that the penal code contains vaguely defined articles that the security services could use to target activists and further restrict freedom of expression, including online.
Authorities reportedly used intimidation to discourage some activists from calling for reforms or writing about the country’s political situation following the death of Sultan Qaboos, a human rights organization said in January. According to the report, one activist living in exile said that he and members of his family in Oman received threats from Omani officials, who instructed his family to prevent him from posting anything on social media.
In July the sultan reportedly pardoned four exiled Omani political activists, social media and press sources said, although no official government channel released information regarding these pardons. Two of the reported pardon recipients returned to Oman and professed loyalty to the sultan in social media videos. Press reports alleged that the activists who returned also agreed to limit their social media engagement.
In April authorities postponed indefinitely due to COVID-19 the trial of Musallam al-Ma’ashani, according to a human rights organization that reported on this matter. In November 2019 human rights organizations reported that authorities arrested al-Ma’ashani at the Sarfait border crossing upon his return from Yemen. These groups and social media users claimed authorities arrested al-Ma’ashani for printing a book documenting tribal activities in Dhofar, which he intended to submit to the Ministry of Information for display at the 2020 Muscat International Book Fair. According to social media posts, authorities later released al-Ma’ashani in November on bail after approximately two weeks in detention.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Media did not operate freely. Authorities tolerated limited criticism in privately owned newspapers and magazines; however, editorials generally were consistent with the government’s views. Although mainstream social debate occurred in traditional and social media (especially on Twitter), the government and privately owned radio and television stations did not generally broadcast political material criticizing the government.
Courts issued fines and prison sentences and ordered the confiscation of several individuals’ phones for disseminating rumors and messages violating public order, the Supreme Committee on COVID-19 announced in April.
Authorities required journalists to obtain a license to work; freelance journalists were ineligible for a license.
Violence and Harassment: Some journalists reported harassment by high-level government officials for printing stories perceived as critical of their particular ministries.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Headlines in both public and private media print outlets were subject to an official nontransparent review and approval process before publication. Journalists and writers exercised self-censorship. The law permits the Ministry of Information to review all media products including books produced within or imported into the country. The ministry occasionally prohibited or censored material from domestic and imported publications viewed as politically, culturally, or sexually offensive. There was only one major publishing house in the country, and publication of books remained limited. The government required religious groups to notify the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs before importing any religious materials. The government confiscated or prohibited more than 20 books during the country’s annual state-run Muscat International Book Fair, human rights organizations said in February.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel is a criminal offense, which allows for up to one year’s imprisonment.
National Security: The government prohibited publication of any material that “undermines the prestige of the state.”
The law restricts free speech exercised via the internet, and the government enforced these restrictions. The law allows authorities to prosecute individuals for any message that “violates public order and morals” sent via any medium. The law details crimes that take place on the internet that “might prejudice public order or religious values” and specifies a penalty of between one month and a year in prison. Authorities could apply the law against bloggers and social media users who insult the sultan. Authorities placed individuals who abused social media in custody for up to two weeks and provided them with “advice and guidance,” the OHRC said in September.
In June police arrested and detained Awadh al-Sawafi, an activist and blogger, for social media posts in which he criticized the government for threatening citizens, according to human rights organizations. Reports said that a court issued al-Sawafi a suspended one-year prison sentence and banned him from using social media for one year.
In June a court of appeals sentenced a citizen to three years’ imprisonment, confiscated the defendant’s phone, and closed his Twitter account for “provoking and inciting hatred and division among the country’s population,” according to the Public Prosecution.
Human rights observers expressed concern that the country’s new Cyber Defense Center, established in June under the Internal Security Service, would further compromise internet freedom and freedom of expression.
Authorities monitored the activities of telecommunications service providers and obliged them to block access to numerous websites considered pornographic, or culturally or politically sensitive. Authorities sometimes blocked blogs as well as most VoIP technologies, but in March the TRA lifted its ban on VoIPs such as Skype, Google Meet, Zoom, and WebEx during what the TRA called the “exceptional period” of COVID-19.
Social media users exercised self-censorship and shared warnings exhorting users to follow local laws and regulations.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events. Academics largely practiced self-censorship. Colleges and universities were required to have permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Higher Education before meeting with foreign diplomatic missions or accepting money for programs or speakers.
The government censored publicly shown films, primarily for sexual content and nudity, and placed restrictions on performances in public venues. The law also forbids dancing in restaurants and entertainment venues without a permit.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. Human rights organizations expressed concern that overly broad provisions in the penal code could further restrict the work of human rights activists and limit freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The law provides for limited freedom of assembly, but the government restricted this right. Under the penal code, gatherings of 10 or more persons in a public place are unlawful if they “endangered the public security or order” or “influenced the function of authorities.”
Freedom of Association
The law provides for freedom of association for undefined “legitimate objectives and in a proper manner.” Examples of such associations include registered labor unions and social groups for foreign nationalities.
The government limited freedom of association by prohibiting associations whose activities it deemed “inimical to the social order” or otherwise inappropriate. Citizens joining groups deemed harmful to national interests could be subject to revocation of citizenship.
Associations must register with their corresponding ministries, which approve all associations’ bylaws and determine whether a group serves the interest of the country. The time required to register an association ranged from two months to two years. Approval time varied based on the level of preparedness of the applying organization, the subject matter of the organization, its leadership, and the organization’s mission. The law limits formal registration of nationality-based associations to one association for each nationality and restricts activities of such associations. The government sometimes denied permission for associations to form.
The penal code forbids associations from conducting any kind of fundraising without government approval, including for charitable causes. Individuals convicted of accepting unlawful funding for an association may receive up to one year in jail. Foreign diplomatic missions are required to request meetings with nongovernmental associations through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by diplomatic note. Associations may not meet with foreign diplomatic missions and foreign organizations without prior approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The government enforced this law, and all foreign-funded educational and public diplomacy programs required prior government review.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. Citizens could generally travel freely outside the country, although this right is not codified.
In-country Movement: There are no official government restrictions on internal travel for any citizen. The government must approve on a case-by-case basis official travel by foreign diplomats to the Dhofar and Musandam regions. There were reports many foreign domestic employees had their passports confiscated by employers, who sponsor the foreign workers, even though the law prohibited this practice.
Employers have a great amount of control over these workers, particularly domestic workers who are not covered by existing labor laws. The country’s visa-sponsorship system (kafala) ties migrant workers to their employers and prevents them from changing jobs without their sponsor’s consent. Migrant workers generally cannot work for a new employer in the country within a two-year period without the permission of their current employer, even if they complete their contract. Employers can have a worker’s visa canceled arbitrarily. Workers who leave their jobs without the consent of their employer can be punished with fines, deportation, or reentry bans. In May, however, the ROP issued a decision that as of January 1, 2021, expatriates would no longer require a “no-objection certificate” to secure new work upon completion or termination of their employment contracts.
Foreign Travel: Foreign workers must obtain exit permits from their employer to leave the country legally. Exit permits may be denied when there is a dispute over payment or work remaining, leaving the foreign citizen in country with recourse only through local courts. In theory courts provided recourse to workers denied exit permits, but the process was opaque with domestic workers consistently alleging that existing dispute resolution mechanisms were inadequate to protect them.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
f. Protection of Refugees
The government generally did not allow asylum seekers to remain in the country. Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) personnel occasionally visited the country but did not maintain an office or personnel locally. The Committee for International Humanitarian Law considers issues of refugees and displaced persons, according to the OHRC.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The country has a large number of female migrant workers from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and Uganda, many of whom are employed as domestic workers. Nongovernmental organizations based outside the country and embassies of labor-sending countries alleged that domestic workers faced maltreatment, to include physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. The law criminalizes slavery and trafficking, and the government was making efforts to combat trafficking. Although forced labor is punished under the labor law, domestic workers are excluded from the law’s protections. In 2019 courts convicted seven individuals for human trafficking crimes. For the first time, the government convicted two Omani nationals of trafficking.
Refoulement: The government did not provide comprehensive protection to asylum seekers from involuntary returns to countries where their lives or freedom could be threatened, subjecting them to the possibility of refoulement. Tight control over the entry of foreigners effectively limited access to protection for asylum seekers.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refuge for displaced persons, and the government has established a system for providing protection. The ROP’s system for granting asylum and resettlement was not transparent, and the law does not specify a timeframe in which the ROP must adjudicate an asylum application. It was policy not to recognize refugees from conflict zones such as Yemen, although the government provided temporary medical care to certain Yemeni citizens. In practice there are no substantive legal protections for asylum seekers in the country.
Temporary Protection: The government provided emergency medical care to certain Yemeni citizens who demonstrated they could not receive adequate care in Yemen. These Yemenis and one accompanying family member per patient were offered status in Oman during the treatment period.
g. Stateless Persons
Under the law citizenship is passed only through the father. Therefore, children born to foreign fathers and Omani citizen mothers in Oman were at risk of statelessness.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The law does not provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage. The sultan retains ultimate authority on all foreign and domestic issues. With the exception of the military and other security forces, all citizens who have reached 21 years of age have the right to vote for candidates for the Majlis al-Shura and the provincial councils.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: In October 2019 nearly 350,000 citizens participated in the Majlis al-Shura elections for the Consultative Council, or lower house of parliament. Electoral commissions reviewed potential candidates against a set of objective educational and character criteria (at least a high school education and no criminal history or mental illness) before they allowed candidates’ names on the ballot. The Ministry of Interior administered and closely monitored campaign materials and events. There were no notable or widespread allegations of fraud or improper government interference in the voting process. The government did not allow independent monitoring of the elections, but it invited some international journalists to the country to report on election day events. The OHRC said it was a member of the Main Elections Committee and a key partner in overseeing the electoral process.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in May the sultan postponed quadrennial municipal council elections, last held in 2016. The government did not set a date for when these elections would take place.
Political Parties and Political Participation: The law does not allow political parties, and citizens did not attempt to form them.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. During the Majlis al-Shura elections in October 2019, voters elected two women as representatives. The sultan appointed 15 women to the Majlis al-Dawla in November 2019.
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides that workers can form and join unions, as well as conduct legal strikes and bargain collectively, but with significant restrictions. The law provides for one general federation, to which all unions must affiliate, and which represents unions in regional and international fora. The law requires a minimum of 25 workers to form a union, regardless of company size. The law requires an absolute majority of an enterprise’s employees to approve a strike, and notice must be given to employers three weeks in advance of the intended strike date. The law allows for collective bargaining; regulations require employers to engage in collective bargaining on the terms and conditions of employment, including wages and hours of work. Where there is no trade union, collective bargaining may take place between the employer and five representatives selected by workers. The employer may not reject any of the representatives selected. While negotiation is underway, the employer may not act on decisions related to problems under discussion. The law prohibits employers from firing or imposing other penalties on employees for union activity, although it does not require reinstatement for workers fired for union activity.
Despite the legal protections for labor unions, no independent organized labor unions existed. Worker rights continued to be administered and directed by the General Federation of Oman Workers (GFOW).
The GFOW responded to reports of labor rights violations, some precipitated by the COVID-19-related economic downturn. During the COVID-19 outbreak in the country, the GFOW received complaints that employers reduced or failed to pay wages, forced workers to take unpaid leave, and deducted time in quarantine from workers’ leave banks, according to several local press reports. As of September publicly released GFOW statistics highlighted that the Federation had received 370 reports of violations, participated in more than 200 settlement agreements, and referred some companies to the Public Prosecution.
Government-approved unions are open to all legal workers regardless of nationality, though the law prohibits members of the armed forces, other public security institutions, government employees, domestic workers, as well as individuals convicted of criminal activity or acts against the security of the country or national unity from forming or joining such unions. In addition, labor laws apply only to workers who perform work under a formal employment agreement and excludes domestic workers.
The law prohibits unions from accepting grants or financial assistance from any source without the Ministry of Labor’s prior approval. All unions are subject to the regulations of the government federation and may be shut down or have their boards dismissed by the federation.
The government generally enforced applicable laws effectively and respected the rights to collectively bargain and conduct strikes, although strikes in the oil and gas industries are forbidden. The government provided an alternative dispute resolution mechanism through the Ministry of Labor, which acted as mediator between the employer and employee for minor disputes such as disagreement over wages. If not resolved to the employee’s satisfaction, the employee could, and often did, resort to the courts for relief. The country lacked dedicated labor courts, and observers noted the mandatory grievance procedures were confusing to many workers, especially foreign workers. The Ministry of Labor had sufficient resources to act in dispute resolution.
Freedom of association in union matters and the right to collective bargaining exist, but often the threat of a strike can prompt either company action or government intervention. Strikes rarely occurred and were generally resolved quickly, sometimes through government mediation.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits all forced or compulsory labor but explicitly excludes domestic workers. All police officials underwent training in how to identify victims of trafficking in persons to help them identify cases of forced or compulsory labor.
Conditions indicative of forced labor were present. By law all expatriate workers, who constituted approximately 80 percent of the workforce, must be sponsored by a citizen employer or accredited diplomatic mission. Some migrant workers, employed as domestic workers or as low-skilled workers in the construction, agriculture, and service sectors, faced working conditions indicative of forced labor, including withholding of passports, restrictions on movement, usurious recruitment fees, nonpayment of wages, long working hours without food or rest, threats, and physical or sexual abuse. These situations were generally considered civil or contract matters by authorities, who encouraged dispute resolution rather than criminal action. Authorities continued to rely on victims to identify themselves and report abuses proactively, rather than proactively investigating trafficking in vulnerable communities.
Sponsorship requirements left workers vulnerable to exploitative and abusive conditions and made it difficult for them to change employers (see section 2.d.). Some sponsors allow their employees to work for other employers, sometimes in return for a fee. This practice is illegal, but enforcement was weak, and such arrangements left workers vulnerable. The government clarified that sponsors of domestic workers are not allowed to send their workers to another home to work, but the regulation was weakly enforced. Some employers of domestic workers, contrary to law, withheld passports and other documents, complicating workers’ release from unfavorable contracts and preventing workers’ departure after their work contracts expired. The ROP issued a decision on May 31 that expatriates will no longer require a “no objection certificate” (NOC) from their employers to secure new work upon completion or termination of their employment contracts, effective January 1, 2021. Some employers exploited the NOC requirement to demand exorbitant release fees totaling as much as four months’ salary before permitting workers to change employers. Until the elimination of the NOC requirement becomes effective, foreign workers are required to either depart the country for a minimum of two years or remain in their current position. There were reports that sponsors were reluctant to provide NOCs, which would result in loss of the foreign labor certificate for that position.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The minimum age for employment is 16, or 18 for certain hazardous occupations. Employees younger than 18 may work only between the hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. and are prohibited from working for more than six hours per day, on weekends, or on holidays. The law allows exceptions to the age requirement in agricultural works, fishing, industrial works, handicrafts, sales, and administrative jobs, under the conditions that it is a one-family business and does not hinder the juvenile’s education or affect health or growth.
The Ministry of Labor and ROP are responsible for enforcing laws with respect to child labor. The law provides for fines for minor violations and imprisonment for repeat violations. Employers are given time to correct practices that may be deemed child labor.
In 2019 the country made a moderate advance in eliminating the worst forms of child labor, and there is evidence that children in the country engaged in child labor, including in fishing and selling items in kiosks. The government does not publish information on the enforcement of child labor laws.
Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at HYPERLINK “https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings/”https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings/.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
Labor laws and regulations do not address discrimination based on race, sex, gender, nationality, political views, disability, language, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV-positive status or having other communicable diseases, or social status. Labor laws generally restrict women from working the same hours as men, and, while the laws do not allow women to work in jobs deemed hazardous or arduous, there are no industry-specific occupations that are closed to women. Discrimination occurred based on gender, sexual orientation, nationality, disability, and gender identity. Foreign workers were required to take HIV/AIDS tests and could only obtain or renew work visas if the results were negative.
Although some educated women held positions of authority in government, business, and media, many women faced job discrimination based on cultural norms. The law entitles women to paid maternity leave and equal pay for equal work. The government, the largest employer of women, observed such regulations, as did many private sector employers. The percentage of females working in the government sector increased from 41 percent of the total number of workers in 2014 to 59 percent in 2018, according to official government statistics that the OHRC cited.
The law provides persons with disabilities the same rights as other citizens in employment, and the provision of other state services. Persons with disabilities, however, continued to face discrimination. The law mandates access to public transportation and buildings for persons with disabilities, but many older buildings, including government buildings and schools, did not conform to the law. The law also requires government agencies and private enterprises employing more than 50 persons to reserve a certain percentage of positions for persons with disabilities. This percentage was 2 percent for the private sector; the Civil Service Council was responsible for determining the percentage for the public sector. Authorities did not systematically enforce this regulation.
For further discussion of discrimination, see section 6.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The country has a minimum monthly wage for citizens that does not apply to noncitizens in any occupation. Minimum wage regulations do not apply to a variety of occupations and businesses, including small businesses employing fewer than five persons, dependent family members working for a family firm, or some categories of manual laborers. Most citizens who lived in poverty were engaged in traditional subsistence agriculture, herding, or fishing, and generally did not benefit from the minimum wage. The private sector workweek is 45 hours and includes a two-day rest period following five consecutive days of work. Government workers have a 35-hour workweek. The law mandates overtime pay for hours in excess of 45 per week.
The government sets occupational health and safety standards. The law states an employee may leave dangerous work conditions without jeopardy to continued employment if the employer was aware of the danger and did not implement corrective measures. Employees covered under the labor law may receive compensation for job-related injury or illness through employer-provided medical insurance. The government offered free COVID-19-related treatment to any resident of the country, regardless of legal status, who showed symptoms and did not have the means to pay for medical costs.
Neither wage and hour nor occupational safety and health regulations apply to domestic workers.
The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing labor laws, and it employed inspectors in Muscat and around the country. It generally enforced the law effectively with respect to citizens; however, it did not always effectively enforce regulations regarding hours of employment and working conditions for foreign workers.
In July some expatriate workers for a construction company protested against alleged COVID-19-related loss of pay and inadequate food provision, causing significant damage to company property, according to social media and traditional press sources. The company stopped the demonstrations with the support of the government and reached out to embassies to coordinate the repatriation of expatriate employees who had lost jobs.
Labor inspectors performed random checks of worksites to verify compliance with all labor laws. Inspectors from the Department of Health and Safety of the Labor Care Directorate are responsible for enforcement of health and safety codes. Limited inspections of private sector worksites are required by law to deter or redress unsafe working conditions in the most dangerous sectors.
The Ministry of Labor effectively enforced the minimum wage for citizens. No minimum wage existed for noncitizens. In wage cases the Ministry of Labor processed complaints and acted as mediator. In a majority of cases, the plaintiff prevailed, gaining compensation, the opportunity to seek alternative employment, or return to their country of origin in the case of foreign laborers, although they rarely used the courts to seek redress. The ministry was generally effective in cases regarding minor labor disputes.
The government increased efforts to prevent trafficking in persons violations, which disproportionately affected foreign workers.
Foreign workers were vulnerable to poor, dangerous, or exploitative working conditions. There were reports that migrant laborers in some firms and households worked more than 12 hours a day without a day off for below-market wages. Employers often cancelled the employment contracts of seriously sick or injured foreign workers, forcing them to return to their countries of origin or remain in the country illegally. Some labor inspections focused on enforcing visa violations and deporting those in an irregular work visa status rather than verifying safe and adequate work conditions.
There are no maximum work-hour limits for domestic workers nor any mandatory rest periods, although the contract between the employer and worker can specify such requirements. There were some reports that domestic workers were forced to work with inadequate rest periods. Separate domestic employment regulations obligate the employer to provide domestic workers with free local medical treatment throughout the contract period. Penalties for noncompliance with health regulations were insufficient to deter violations. Some domestic workers were subjected to abusive conditions.
There was no data available on workplace fatalities or safety. In July, two expatriate workers died when an excavation site collapsed, according to the local press.