Welcome to the first of our five part series on unions in Oman. Over the course of the next few months, we will be looking at some key legislative provisions relating to unions: the right to facilities, communications, disclosure of information and taking strike action.

When unions became lawful in Oman in 2006, their impact was not really felt until five years later, with the onset of the 2011 Arab Spring. We have seen a radical shift in industrial relations in Oman, more than in any other Gulf state, and unions are becoming a powerful tool for the vast majority of national manpower who seek better pay and benefits and other improvements to working conditions.

There has been a raft of legislation on unions, covering union rights and obligations through to collective negotiations and dispute resolution. In 2014, we saw one union unsuccessfully bring a collective dispute action against an employer in the labour courts. The court decided that the union did not have any locus standi to bring a lawsuit against the employer, and ruled that the employees must individually file complaints against their employer. Shortly after that court decision, Ministerial Decision 249/2014 was issued by the Minister of Manpower giving unions the right to represent their members and defend their interests before the judicial entities (i.e. the courts).

At the time of writing, there are almost 200 unions registered so far in Oman, including two sector unions (one for the oil and gas sector unions and one for the manufacturing sector unions). This figure is on the increase, and employers are having to deal with collective requests and union related issues more than ever before.

Aside from the more common demands for better pay and the like, unions also have the right to be involved in other day to day employment issues.

The union legislation states as a prime objective of a union, the 'taking care of member employees' interests, defending their rights, improving their financial and social conditions and representing them in all their affairs'.

In this bulletin, we consider the key points which employers should consider in relation to union representation in disciplinary and grievance proceedings in Oman.

Right to be accompanied and represented

An employee has the right to be accompanied and be represented by a union representative in both disciplinary and grievance meetings. This right is still a relatively new concept for employers in Oman and therefore many will be unfamiliar with how they should deal with union representation at such meetings. To avoid any misunderstanding during a disciplinary or grievance process and to ensure that the process runs smoothly on both sides, we suggest putting in place a framework for dealing with representation.

Policy

Points for employers to consider when preparing such a framework/policy include:

Whether the right to be accompanied/represented by a union representative should be extended to a workplace colleague where the employee is not a union member.

The obvious benefit to extending this right to non union employees is equality of treatment. In addition, employees will not need to feel that they must be a union member to enjoy certain entitlements.

If there is no registered union, should employees be offered the opportunity to be accompanied/represented in any event?

Workplace colleagues can provide an additional channel of communication between management and employees, and can thus prove useful in the process. With effective employer/employee communications, some employees may be less inclined to become unionised.

Whether the union representative's (or workplace colleague's) time off for attending the disciplinary or grievance meeting should be paid or unpaid.

Currently, there is no legal entitlement on employers to grant paid time off to union representatives attending to union tasks. In certain circumstances, union officials may receive remuneration if they undertake full time union activities but this must be with the agreement of the Ministry of Manpower, OCCI and the General Federation of Unions. Even in such circumstances, the employer is not required to meet the burden of remuneration. For the sake of good industrial relations however, allowing paid time off for representation during a grievance or disciplinary meeting would be welcome not only by the union and its members, but would be seen as a positive step by the Ministry of Manpower.

Whether your procedure should provide for advance and reasonable notice of a request to be accompanied or represented at a disciplinary or grievance meeting.

Introducing a requirement on employees to provide advance notice, with the name of the union representative gives employers an opportunity to consider the appropriateness of the proposed representative. For example, what is the likelihood of the proposed representative prejudicing the meeting? Or, how reasonable is it for the employee to ask for a representative to attend from a different geographical location if there is someone already on site who is suitable and willing to attend?

What are the acceptable perimeters of the union representative's role in the meeting?

Should the representative's role be a supportive one only or should he/she be allowed to put and sum up the employee's case, and respond on behalf of the employee to any questions or views expressed at the meeting? Will the representative be permitted to confer with the employee during the meeting? These are points which should clearly be set out in policy and procedure. In other jurisdictions where the right to be accompanied is permitted, the role of the representative is limited in 
disciplinary and grievance hearings, such that they are not permitted to answer questions on the employee's behalf, nor prevent management from putting forward their case, or display acts of aggression.

The union legislation will continue to evolve to fit in with the developing industrial relations scene here in Oman. It is therefore important to ensure that your policies and procedures also fit with the changing times (and to keep these under review) so that your organisation is sufficiently equipped to deal with new challenges arising from unionisation.