US House Democrats say Oman labor reform not enough

Washington Post | Tuesday, July 11, 2006

US House Democrats say Oman labor reform not enough

Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Democrats opposed to a free trade pact with Oman said on Tuesday that new reforms to the Gulf Arab state’s labor laws fall short of what is needed to win their support for the agreement.

A royal decree issued late on Saturday by Omani Sultan Qaboos "appears to address fully only one of the 10 areas where Oman’s labor laws do not comply with basic international standards," Democrats on the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee said in an analysis of the new legislation.

But a U.S. trade official defended the action as a step toward enacting reforms that Oman has promised by October 31.

"What they have essentially done is change their basic law and these royal decrees say now collective bargaining and lawful strikes are allowed," the official said, speaking to reporters on condition he not be identified.

The royal decree will be followed by government regulations that will flesh out the labor reforms, he said.

The full House is expected to vote this month on the pact with Oman, which the Bush administration describes as a strong ally. However, many Democrats who backed a free trade pact last year with another Gulf Arab state, Bahrain, are withholding their support for the Omani agreement.

Oman has a population of about 3 million and foreigners make up about 75 percent of the private sector workforce.

The congressional Democrats said the July 8 royal decree fully addresses one concern by more than quadrupling fines to about $1,300 for the worst forms of child labor.

But they said a provision against forced labor was inadequate because it "does not address the withholding of workers’ documents" — a situation the State Department has said sometimes prevents foreign workers in Oman from changing jobs.

The royal decree only partly addresses concerns about anti-union discrimination and promises action on five other labor law deficiencies without providing any specifics, the Democrats said.

The Senate voted 60-34 last month in favor of the U.S.-Oman free trade agreement, but the House also must pass the measure for it to become law.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and White House National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley will help make the case for the pact by stressing the national security benefits of a peaceful and prosperous Middle East, the U.S. trade official said.

"I think at the end of the day ... we’ll get a strong vote," he said.

source: Reuters