Sijan, Syria – After three-and-a-half years of hard work on an oil drilling rig run by a private company in the heart of the Syrian desert, Yamen is still searching for his legal rights. He is lost between an obsolete law, the negligence of the Ministry of Labour, and the silence of the insurance company regarding the evasion of payment of his dues by his employer.
Yamen’s situation is similar to that of about 100 others working on three rigs belonging to a private foreign company drilling for oil in Sijan, 65 km east of Deir Al-Zoor governorate, which produces 65% of the oil in Syria — averaging 350-380,000 barrels per day.
Yamen supports his 9 brothers and his parents on a monthly salary of Syrian Pounds (SL) 7,500. He and the other workers all work under extremely harsh weather conditions, summer and winter, sand storms that turn their days into nights and force them to cease work. Yamen and his colleagues work for 20 consecutive days and then have 10 days off.
In addition, the workers say they are unaware of the safety and security measures that should protect them from the dangers of drilling for a company that does not adhere to the basic rules of the job.
Yamen,26, started work on the morning of May 28, 2004, when he managed to find a job opportunity that he believed, and still does, would secure his future in a sector providing a higher income than others in a country whose labour law sets a minimum monthly wage of SL 4,805.
But he miscalculated, particularly after suffering a hiatal hernia on the left side during work on January 29, 2006. He had to pay the cost of surgery and treatment amounting to SL 7,500 (document 25),
In Yamen’s case, it was legally required that the General Organisation of Social Security – the party that liaises between the employee and the company – pay the treatment costs and compensation for any injury that may occur during work, provided that his company has paid the required insurance.
But since Yamen did not know his legal rights, and his employer did not consider his injury to be work related, he was forced to pay all treatment costs himself, according to what said in an interview with “Al-Hal”.
However, this kind of negligence on behalf of the employer is in no way only restricted to the foreign companies operating in Syria. The Organisation of Social Security is also negligent in following up on the situation of the employees and their working conditions, which makes it easy for the company to avoid paying the funds due to the employees, according to a lawyer.
Theoretically, the Organisation is supposed to make regular inspection visits, at least twice a year, to ensure the well-being of the employees by inspecting their working conditions. But no such visits were made to the company Yamen is working for, not even once during all of 2007. This is according to the records of the Organisation of Social Security in Deir Al-Zoor, which does not feel responsible for this since they argue that the company did not provide it with copies of work contracts.
Yamens’ story of suffering is mirrored in that of As’ad Ismail Al-Ahmad, whose shoulder was dislocated as a result of a steel pipe falling on him during his work. The accident occurred on derrick number four that belongs to the same company that won the contract of drilling from 2002 until 2009. According to the manager of human resources in the company. As’ad’s injury was not reported to the Insurance Organisation, nor was it recorded by the company in order to document his condition and safeguard his rights of receiving treatment, because, as As’ad says, he was unaware of his rights. (Doc. 21).
Returning to Yamen, after the surgery, the company official gave Yamen half the cost of the operation (SL 3,500) as a gesture of good-will to avoid legal procedures, despite the fact that, according to the director of human resources, the firm is not responsible for such compensations.
He added: “Social Security is the party responsible for work-related injuries, and we pay them the insurance installments regularly.” He also said: “We as a company help the worker in case he suffers an injury or undergoes surgery merely as a contribution from us, and this is a gesture of appreciation by us.”
However, according to the Damascus branch of Social Security, the case of Yamen is not a unique one. The information available shows that the company does not meet its obligation of paying the insurance dues of its employees. It also appears that the employing company tries to satisfy its employees by offering them assistance that mostly does not exceed a quarter of their legal dues, in order that they do not bring legal charges against the company, to force it to pay the complete amounts due. All this was proven by the Damascus branch of the Organisation of Social Security.
The private company that Yamen works for has not paid the amounts of workers’ insurance as the contracts signed with the Syrian Oil Company, responsible for contracts with foreign companies, official records show. They owe the Organization 29,550, as shown in the following documents.
Contract No. 104 for 2002, for the amount of SL 1,220, has not been settled.
Contract No. 89 for 2002 for the amount of SL 4,833 has not been settled.
Contract No. 314 for 2004 for SL 648 has not been settled.
Contract No. 96 for 2004 for the amount of SL 1,533 has not been settled.
Contract No. 119 for 2005 for the amount of 17, 678 has not been settled.
Contract No. 120 for 2005 for the amount of SL 104 has not been settled.
Contract No. 171 for 2005 for the amount of SL 537 has not been settled.
An employee of the department of private contracting at the Organisation of Social Security (Damascus branch) explained there are other contracts that have not been settled by the same company. Hence, the total sum required for payment by the company is SL 95,123.
According to the documents available, the company had not paid the insurance due for work-related injuries by the dates of both Yamen’s injury on January 29, 2004, and that of As’ad on April 8, 2006.
The employee said that the Organisation does not follow up with the company on the financial dues it is obliged to make because the law guarantees them. The law stipulates that the company cannot complete its work and leave the country without fulfilling all its financial obligations to all Syrian organizations. If a company fails to pay insurance for its employees, the Insurance Organisation will confiscate the company’s equipment in order to cover the required sum and its rights.
But despite the legal guarantees, most of the workers’ rights are lost, between their ignorance of what rights they have, and the company’s evasion of paying the insurance, as well as the Organisation’s neglect of following up, according to the same employee.
The situation is further exacerbated by the weak Syrian labour law and the absence of legal supervision of the employer companies, as well as the manner in which the contracts are signed.
Lawyers specialized in compensation of workers say that the structure of the 1959 Syrian Labour Law, still active, is not in harmony with oil investment laws and protection of workers, because drilling for oil is a recent activity, and the commercial production of oil only began in the late 1980’s.
Even though the company pays workers in various professions (electricians, painters and drilling crew) between SL 7,000 and 9,000 monthly, according to these workers, they work between ten and 12 hours per day.
This in itself is a violation of the contract signed between the two parties, which stipulates that they work eight hours a day for twenty consecutive days per month. Lawyer Majed Mohammad Hamed stated: “The conditions agreed upon by the employer and employee, as well as the organisational conditions agreed upon between employer and employee, are what designate the relationship between them.”
Due to the lack of transport facilities to their homes, and their need to provide their livelihood, workers work very long hours. This sense of desperation makes it easy for the company to exploit them, in working overtime without extra payment, according to the workers and lawyers . Work in the oil fields must continue round the clock, they add.
But the company divides the work into two shifts instead of three eight-hour shifts, as the contracts stipulate so that only two teams work around the clock.
During this investigation, “Al Hal” found out that the company does not adhere to the type of work agreed upon in the contract and requires the employees to do work that is not mentioned in the contract. For example, Yamen and others work in different specializations, such as mechanics, painters, electricians and welders (Document 36) without any financial return, because there is no clear legal provision dealing with this situation in the special labour law that regulates the relationship between private sector employees and their employers.
Director of Labour at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour Rakan Ibrahim stated: “The law does not require the worker to work in all those professions, but at the same time, it does not ban it in case the employer requests it.”
The Ministry says it cannot contact the said company because it would not be authorized to do so except upon a formal request from the workers.
The workers say that the company compels them to sign new contracts at the end of each year so that they do not receive termination compensation. An employee of the company who preferred not to be named confirmed this and said that the employee stops work for one week, between one contract and the next, which relieves the company legally from paying compensations due in case he continues working without stopping for this week.
But Yamen escaped this legal rigmarole and has only signed one contract since he began his work in 2004 due to a bureaucratic error in the company. His current contract enables him to sue the company as a permanent employee, and therefore he can guarantee his right to end-of-employment compensation. But the difficulty of traveling to Damascus, which according to the contract is the only place of litigation, prevents him doing that. Yamen does not possess the traveling expenses, hotel, and basic food, which would amount to SL 1,000 while his monthly salary does not exceed SL 7,500. In addition to that is the time he would have to spend there to follow up on his case.
The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour stated it does not require the worker to pay for legal advice, and in fact, it is ready to sue the company in case he requests it, but it cannot defray the costs of travel and stay in Damascus. Again, the workers’ ignorance and their lack of funds prevent them from attaining their rights.
The Syrian labour law, stipulates that the annual contracts signed by the company with the workers, allows the latter to reach their goals in case they sue the company and have proof other than the written contract, on condition that the worker stays on the job without a break between the end of the first contract and the beginning of the next one.
The company’s human resources manager stated that the company signs contracts between its office in Deir-Al-Zoor and the workers, and wages are agreed upon from the beginning.
“We do not force anyone to work for us, but we do provide job opportunities that do not exist anyway, and we help the workers in case of injury or anything else.” But he did not offer proof of the truth of his claims despite several requests to do so. He adds: “Every worker signs a contract after reading it and agrees from the start to the salary, with no witnesses.”
But the workers say they do not receive a copy of the contract, and that most of the time they sign it in a hurry or in the car that takes them directly to the rig, without reading it or its conditions. They justify their actions by their need to make a living, the difficulty of asking for information from the company, as asking about the content of the contract might cost them the job.
According to Article 43 of the Labour Law, the contract must be in writing, in the Arabic language, with a copy for each of the two parties. If a written contract does not exist, then only the worker can gain proof of his rights by any means possible, including the testament of two co-workers, or by taking an oath.
Last year, 20 workers on Rig No. 4, owned by the private foreign company, decided to approach officials for attaining their rights, but to no avail. They presented a petition to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour, in which they showed that the company deprives them of their compensations for the nature of work in the desert, and for official and religious holidays, heat and their dangerous work in the in the oil fields. They called on the Ministry to bring them justice (Documents 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17).
The petition also included a complaint against the company for deducting one-third of January 2007 salary of each worker, in addition to reducing the basic salary from SL 5,000 to 3,300-3,500 , that is, below the minimum salary. They said that they had decided not to accept their reduced salaries in an effort to put pressure on the company to withdraw its decision.
When the company found out about the petition, it requested its lawyer to negotiate with the workers and convince them to withdraw their decision, the workers said. The company lawyer took it upon himself to threaten to fire the workers who refused to receive their salaries, which forced them to retract and accept their reduced salaries for fear of losing their jobs, they said.
The lawyer, though, denied that he had threatened the workers and said he had no knowledge of the deduction of one-third of the salaries, and also refused to comment on any aspect of the subject, saying: “You must ask the company.” The Ministry then addressed letter No. 21, of February 25, 2007, to the Directorate of Worker Affairs in Deir Al-Zoor asking it to look into the complaint. An investigation began and a meeting was called in the presence of a representative of the workers and another representing the company, in addition to a representative of the Directorate in order to ascertain the facts. The workers, out of fear of dismissal, refused to confirm their complaints, even if they received their full rights (Documents 1-17). Accordingly, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour replied as follows on March 4, 2007:
* Regarding compensation for working under desert conditions: There is nothing in Labour Law 91 that covers such a compensation for the private sector, but does only for public sector employees.
* Compensation for working on official holidays and feast days: the company produced receipts for pay, despite their accusing the company in their petition to the Ministry of not paying this compensation.
* Heat compensation: This is paid to public sector employees only, according to the Syrian Labour Law, as this appeared only in the basic public service law and not in the labour law.
*Compensation for annual leave: The 10-day paid rest period that the workers get every month after working 20 consecutive days is considered as more than the annual leave due the employee as stipulated in Article 58 of the Labour Law, which allows the employees 14 days of leave a year, or around one day per month.
We should mention here that the 10-day rest period comes after 20 days of continuous work and in lieu of overtime payments for the overtime they work in the oil fields. If we make a simple calculation, we find that the contract requires the employee to work eight hours per day, while he is made to work 12, and may be asked to return to work at any time, which brings the hours worked to 240 in 20 days, while they should actually work only 160 hours per week.
*Compensation for dangerous work and radiation: Labour Law 91 does not cover such compensation.
*Increase of basic salary: Minimum wage is considered at SL 4,805 according to Ministry Resolution 1063 of May 30, 2006.
Mr. Rakan Ibrahim, Director of Labour at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour, stated that in all cases it is not possible to sue the company and force it to pay compensation for dangerous work or the nature of the desert unless it is stipulated in the contract. “The Labour Law does not cover these matters, in case it is referred to, and we cannot force them to make such payments”, he said. (Document 33)
For the workers this means that they are trapped between the nature of the contracts they signed with the company, which stipulate that the law courts in Damascus are the party that decides on differences between the employees and the company, and between the lack of enthusiasm of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour regarding defending them. Also, the old law does not provide any guarantee of protection of the private sector employee against the authority of the company. In addition, the silence of the Insurance Organisation regarding the company’s avoidance of payment of the dues, and on the other hand, the unemployment that threatens them if the company fires them.
One of the workers ends his talk with “Al Hal” by saying: “this company subjects us to the worst kind of exploitation, and we don’t even feel we are humans in the treatment we receive, not to mention our low salaries, but there is no place for dignity and the threat of unemployment.”
This report was prepared with the support of ARIJ www.arij.net under the supervision of Dr. Marwan Qabalan of the University of Damascus