x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Oman sends 70,000 illegal workers home and 30,000 taxis now have no passengers

Profits for Muscat's cab drivers plummet after government orders deportation of tens of thousands of foreign workers.

MUSCAT // Taxi drivers in Muscat said the government's decision to deport thousands of illegal foreign workers from the country has reduced their income by up to 50 per cent in the past six months and some have been forced to take up other jobs to make ends meet. Oman started rounding up illegal foreign workers, mainly from the subcontinent, in August. More than 70,000 workers returned to their homelands in the past six months. Most of the deported foreign workers were working in Muscat, Oman's biggest city, according to reports published in the local newspapers.

There are about 30,000 taxis in the country, according to the car registry office at the ministry of commerce. The majority of the drivers in Oman own and drive the taxis and almost all of them never finished high school. Mohammed Taher, 35, has been driving his taxi since he was 21. He dropped out of school when he was 15 and worked in his father's weaving business before saving enough money for a down payment on his first taxi.

"Taxi drivers like me mainly survive on transporting Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani workers. Most of them are low-income workers who cannot afford to buy their own cars. Since the government's clampdown on illegal workers last year, our business has dropped by half," Mr Taher said. Most illegal workers earn between 90 to 200 rials (Dh895 to Dh1,990) a month as domestic workers, or construction labourers, or by doing odd jobs.

According to the taxi owner Rashid Ghabshi, 52, a typical day used to earn him about 45 rials, which comes to about 950 rials a month after deducting his business expenses, such as fuel, car payments and maintenance. "From the last six months, the fare from my customers has gradually come down to about 500 rials a month from 950 rials I used to get before the crackdown. Who do we complain to? In a way, the government is right by cleaning out illegal workers but it hurts our business," Mr Ghabshi said.

Some cab owners struggling with car repayments and other bills said they are considering taking on other jobs during the day and just driving their taxis in the evening. "If I don't find an alternative income soon, then the automobile agent will repossess the car. I am looking for a job so I can do the taxi business in the evenings and weekends to keep up with bills," Hilal Radhwan said. The 41-year-old has been in the taxi business for 15 years.

But jobs for school dropouts are not easy to find, as Fawzi Bilal, another taxi owner, has learnt. "That's the reason we end up doing the taxi business, because we struggled to find a decent job 20 years ago. Now it is worse because we are not as young as we used to be. I can't really blame employers. Their priorities will be young and educated people, not ageing taxi drivers like us," Mr Bilal, 46, said.

He now has to work longer hours and seven days a week to make up for the drop in business. "I used to take a day off every week and work nine hours a day. Now I work every day for 12 hours. I still don't get the same income as before but it has been worth the effort," Mr Bilal said. A couple of younger cabbies in their twenties were lucky to find temporary jobs during the day that left them free to drive their taxis at night. "Taxi business is becoming more dependent on Asian workers and I suspect that the government will always try to trim down the number of expatriates, illegal or otherwise," said Hemed al Zaraee, 27, who works as a part-time office assistant during the day.

Mr Radhwan said he hoped the current drop in business would be temporary. He recalled a similar government clampdown on illegal workers nine years ago that was a short-term hardship to taxi owners. "It was in 2001 when the government sent home thousands of illegal workers. The problem returned somehow and taxi business went back to normal a year or two later. They can't control it though they try," Mr Radhwan said.

Last week, the manpower minister, Sheikh Abdulla al Bakri, told reporters that there were more than one million expatriate workers registered in Oman. That makes up a third of Oman's total population of three million people. He did not say how many of them are currently working illegally, but employment experts estimate more than 200,000. foreign.desk@thenational.ae