But, things are SO cheap here!
The Gulf was one of the few places I’ve lived where many of my teaching colleagues hired help each week, especially for house cleaning and car washing. For less than US $10, a teacher could hire the services of a cleaner for an entire weekend afternoon. Call me crazy, but I like doing my own cooking and cleaning so I never went the way of many other expats while I was living there.
During my first two years in Oman, college administration officials allowed faculty to have their cars washed on campus. This practice gave some of the college-sponsored laborers the opportunity to add to monthly salaries as low as RO 40, or a little over US $100. I was accused more than once by co-workers of ‘spoiling’ the system because it was difficult for me to pay one of these laborers the equivalent of US $1.00 for hand-washing the exterior and cleaning the interior of my car in temps that would bring on heatstroke for an average person. In reality, I wasn’t alone in paying more than the standard rate for such services.
Examples of the low cost of services in Oman varied from US $10 for a complete car wash, polish and interior cleaning at a car detailing businesses in Salalah, in Oman’s southern Governorate of Dhofar, to less than US $1 that an Ayurvedic clinic in the city of Sohar paid one of their staff massage therapists for giving a one-hour, full-body massage. As a customer, the Ayurvedic clinic charged the equivalent of US $30 for the massage, so with cheap rent and very low government taxes, it was clear that a business could turn a nice profit in such an environment.
Low wages paid to migrant workers meant that a 1-hour visit by a plumber or electrician would usually cost less than $10, plus parts. These were additional situations where I’d often be admonished by my colleagues for tipping anyone and everyone more than they thought was appropriate, therefore spoiling the system they’d come to enjoy. When the job was finished, a plumber or electrician would rarely offer a total cost when a Westerner would ask “how much?” Their standard response was “whatever you think,” since they were wise enough to realize the Westerner was accustomed to paying high prices back in their home countries for such services. In this way, they left open the possibility that they might be paid more than they would otherwise ask for, almost certainly more than an Omani customer would pay under the same conditions.
Another lesson I quickly learned was not to underestimate the intelligence of a worker simply because they held a low-paying job. Many of the laborers I encountered were bright and had developed ‘street smarts’, depending on the amount of time they’d spent in the Gulf. I recall one janitor at the college who could always be depended on to rattle off the daily exchange rates for a number of world currencies, while another appeared to possess all the skills necessary to perform the duties of an office manager. What they were usually lacking, however, was a formal education (and the paper proof thereof) along with the personal connections (references) required from those in positions of power in order to have a chance for a better job.
The main point I took away from all this was that placing Omani citizens in construction, plumbing and electrical jobs, along with significantly higher government-mandated salaries, would raise the prices of housing and repair services for everyone. And, of course Omanis would prefer to avoid such cost of living adjustments. Providing well-paying jobs for their rapidly growing populations without inflating prices for essential services will be one of the most difficult aspects of each Gulf state’s transition from an over-reliance on oil revenues to a more diversified and sustainable economy.
While packing up after class one day at the university, two female Omani students asked me how much it cost to employ a maid in the USA. Since I didn’t (and still don’t) personally know anyone who’s rich enough to have a full-time housekeeper in America, I chuckled at the naiveté of their question before making up what I felt to be a conservative figure of between $1,500 and $2,000 per month.
The two obviously shocked students gasped and then began chattering excitedly as I left the classroom. According to my Omani friends, a fulltime, live-in Filipina or Indian maid may be paid as little as 60 Omani Rials per month, about US $150, even though they’re required to work 6 ½ days per week, and up to 18 hours per day with Friday mornings often being free. In all the Gulf states other than Yemen, it’s quite normal for most families to employ a fulltime maid to do the cooking, cleaning, laundry and some degree of childcare as well as feeding the goats and any other animals. These duties were made more difficult by the fact that multi-generational Omani families with many children often live together in one large house.
During my two years in the southern city of Salalah, I lived in an apartment with a private entrance on the top floor of a large Omani house. When entering or leaving, I’d often see the family’s Filipina maid hanging freshly-washed laundry on the clothes line outside my door or performing another of her many daily tasks. Upon arriving home at 10:00 or 11:00 at night, I would often see her out pulling children along the street on a wooden toy as though she was a donkey or camel.
This middle-aged woman always wore a haggard expression, gazing at me as I’d pass by as if to say ‘please help me’. Okay, so maybe my very active imagination was working overtime due to the many stories of abuse I’d heard about, but it was clear this hard-working lady wasn’t happy. While I became accustomed to watching male migrant laborers toiling away in clothing that was soaked in perspiration, I was never able to accept the plight of these brave women. The only time I ever saw the maid outside the walled compound was on Friday morning when I’d occasionally see her chatting across the street with another maid.
While the male laborers at least had the companionship of fellow countrymen, I felt great empathy for the plight of the females who worked as maids for private families because they had to endure their hardships in solitude, often being locked inside the family compound away from the culture at large. There have been many horrific accounts published of physical and verbal abuse toward female house servants in the Gulf, with these workers even reportedly being murdered in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. While I continue to believe this sort of abuse was rare in Oman, the lack of transparency in labor practices all across the region created a situation where the workers were often at the complete mercy of their employers.
Read more here about female domestic worker’s rights in the Gulf.
Watch for Part 3–“The future of the Citizen Workforce” on Sunday April 29…