April 27, 2015

USW works with newly-formed Omani trade unionists

Steve Doherty Training Coordinator, USW District 2

OSH training in OmanThe role of the USW Health, Safety and Environment efforts reach across the borders on many occasions. As a leader in union safety, the Steelworkers’ model is again being shared with the new General Federation for Oman Trade Unions. In conjunction with the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, and following the efforts with the Kurdistan United Workers Union last year, USW District 2 Training Coordinator Steve Doherty facilitated workshops in the cities of Muscat, (April 5 and 6) and Sohar, Oman (April 8 and 9).

The week also included daily meetings with the union leadership and Ministry of Labor to assist with the development of the GFOTU’s health, safety and environment efforts and the role of the union in the development of labor standards.

“It is an exciting opportunity to witness the birth of a union movement and to take a look back at the history of the USW and labor movement in the United States,” Doherty said. “It is an honor to be representing the USW as the first American and first union to conduct training in Oman for the workers.”

The GFOTU currently represents 211 workplace unions, which are organized under two sector federations (oil and gas, and industrial). The GFOTU is considering working to establish sector unions in tourism, electricity and potentially construction. The GFOTU held its founding Congress in 2010, and held a second (and board elections) in 2014. It is worth noting that unions began to form in Oman around 2006.

“It was a good opportunity to work with the Steelworkers and the Solidarity Center. It was very helpful...and they [workshop participants] got a lot of experience from the Steelworkers,” Moosa Ali Al Huseini, head of councils and committees for the GFOTU, said.

As per Omani law, a workplace may be formed with 25 or more employees. GFOTU bylaws suggest that after the implementation of at least five same-sector unions, or what USW refers to as local unions, a sector-specific federation may be established. A sector-specific federation is comparable to a USW sector such as paper industry workers.

Non-Omani workers can join unions, but cannot hold office. On the GFOTU board, there is a representative that heads the migrant worker committee. The national project of “Omanization” has brought private sector employment levels to about 70 percent Omani. At the subcontractor levels, it is much lower and migrant labor force participation is much higher.

Workshop expectations included developing training participants’ knowledge of international labor standards related to occupational safety and health (OSH); educating participants on the role of labor unions in applying OSH standards in the private sector; learn about international best practices to activating the union role in applying OSH standards in the private sector; and laying out tools to support more active contribution of unions and the membership in the field of OSH-specific study and legislation.

In Muscat, the workshop had 30 participants (including one woman) and two representatives from Ministry of Manpower. All are leaders of workplace oil and gas unions, plus board members from the oil and gas sector federation and GFOTU. At the end of the workshop it was announced by the president of the oil and gas union that all participants in the training would be part of the formation of an OSH committee in the oil and gas sector union.

In Sohar there were 30 participants from private sector companies representing general industries along with two representatives from the Ministry of Manpower.

Workshop attendees shared some concerns including, “many companies are not respecting OSH standards, which is driving workers’ concerns;” “workers generally have a low level of awareness of safety standards;” “danger allowance” as requested by some workers who face dangerous workplace conditions; and “many companies are providing poor quality PPE.”

Some questioned how the Oman standards compare to the U.S. and other international worker standards and what were some legislative changes in U.S. in past few years. The answer to the second question opened up discussion on silica standards and heat stress awareness.

Besides concerns, the attendees also commented on positive steps to ensure occupational safety and health. One participant talked about worker outreach regarding OSH before unions formed, and how it helped to build trust among workers. Another who works at large oil company talked about a positive experience in developing a system to reduce heat risks and possibility to expand that best practice. With temperatures reaching over 110 degrees Fahrenheit, there were many concerns raised and questions on how to deal with the hazard of heat and heat stress in the workplace.

Finally, one participant talked about the importance of dealing with Human Resources, feeling that “workers don’t hold the power to implement and change policies.” Another put it differently by stating “How can we encourage employers to do the right thing regarding OSH?”

To address these concerns and build off some of the forward-thinking plans, the USW Systems of Safety approach was introduced and was very well received and embraced by the workshop participants. They were eager to learn about how to raise awareness and eliminate workplace hazards, build solidarity, improve the working conditions and engage the membership. The concept of the USW Tony Mazzocchi Center’s worker-trainer model now has the union leadership exploring how they can develop their own worker-trainers.

In both cities, day one of the workshop consisted of body mapping and hazard mapping small group activities, comparing their developing labor standards to the U.S. and other international standards, and a discussion among the sector leaders’ strategic planning for the future.

Injuries mentioned during the body mapping activity included: chemical, air quality, heat (especially in extreme summer weather), stress, hearing loss, heavy lifting, and back issues from driving/sitting, cancer, vulnerability of hands and fingers, and radiation exposure. Many groups mentioned the importance and priority of personal protective equipment and worker awareness.

During the hazard mapping activity the participants were able to identify where the injuries are occurring and how to move away from PPE to eliminating the hazard instead, through design or mitigating the hazard using the USW’s Hierarchy of Controls and Systems of Safety.

Comparing U.S. labor standards with the Oman standards occurred. Presentations on the U.S.’s “Right to Know” and “Process Safety Management” revealed the depth and detail of the nation’s standards. The discussion included the USW’s and labor’s role in gOSH training in Omanetting these standards established and ensuring compliance within the worksites.

Day two of the workshop concentrated on building effective union safety committees in the facilities and sectors along with strategy discussions to strengthen the union voice at the table with the labor ministry and the companies in the future.

The leadership of the GFOTU expressed interest in developing a relationship with the USW as the future unfolds, to share ideas on the world of global safety and build solidarity among workers everywhere. The resources that the USW has will be a valuable asset and model for the efforts of the GFOTU in the future.

“It’s been great to work with the United Steelworkers, and also with the General Federation of Omani Trade Unions, working on building unions by developing skills in the area of occupational safety and health,” Francesca Ricciardone of the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center said.

Posted In: AFLCIO, Health and Safety, Mazzocchi, USW

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