Analysis

Last resort

By Neil Merrett

30 March 2015

Thousands of migrant workers lured to the Maldives are at risk of becoming prisoners in someone else's paradise.
Maldives Male's skyline from an infinity pool. For many Maldivian youth, the ‘Emirati lifestyle’ beats a hard day’s work.     Photo: Neil Merret

Malé skyline from an infinity pool. For many Maldivian youth, the ‘Emirati lifestyle’ beats a hard day’s work.
Photo: Neil Merret

(On 25 March this year, the Maldivian authorities warned migrant workers from participating in protests following recent incidents of violence against migrant workers in the country. Two Bangladeshi workers were found dead earlier that week. One of them, a 25-year-old was working at a cafe in Male when he was stabbed to death. In this article from our latest quarterly Labour and its Discontents, Neil Merrett examines the predicament of Bangladeshi workers in the Maldives. More web-exclusive articles from this issue here in the days ahead.)

In January 2015, the Maldivian government unveiled plans to inaugurate a training programme to create thousands of cashier positions across the country to be filled exclusively by local workers. The 2000 proposed cashier positions, expected to be made available at shops, cafes and restaurants around the country, will be created by legislation coming into effect from April 2015. The legislation is designed to block the country’s sizeable expatriate workforce from being employed in these roles.

Speaking at the launch of the scheme, Minister of Economic Development Mohamed Saeed noted that an estimated 116,000 expatriates are currently believed to be working in the Maldives, amounting to around half of the country’s entire working population. Earlier that month, the same minister announced that the government would no longer be supplying work permits to foreign photographers to provide Maldivian youth a chance to establish themselves in the lucrative tourism industry.

Labour and its discontents - Himal Southasian Vol 28 No 1

This article is from our latest quarterly issue ‘Labour and its Discontents‘ (March 2015).

These initiatives fit in with a wider aim to boost the number of young people working in the Maldives – an increasingly strict Muslim-majority country that counts fishing and high-end resort-based tourism as its key income streams. The administration of President Abdulla Yameen previously pledged to create 94,000 jobs during a five-year term that began in 2013. According to a World Bank report published in February 2015, 22 percent of young people in the Maldives are unemployed. The report noted that the country’s youth lacked “socio-emotional” and other key skills required in the job market, and aspired to high or unrealistic wages, resulting in a “national phenomenon” of “youth voluntary unemployment”.

In its findings, the World Bank said that although youth unemployment was pronounced, especially in the case of women, it was unclear if the cause was an issue of demand or supply. It highlighted issues related to the perceptions and expectations of parents with regard to what is an acceptable job and wage for their children. “In the atolls specifically, many young women are keen to work and earn a livelihood but lack opportunities due to cultural norms” said the report. Along with fishing, men also work in resorts, though new and ‘better’ types of employment are sought out. Whatever the reasons for the islands’ low rate of youth labour participation, the existence of an ‘emirati’ culture has been the result, with local businesses turning to dubiously sourced migrant labour that is oftentimes trafficked. 

Potemkin boomtown
The current government’s commitment to boost youth employment figures coincides with attempts to try and curb international concerns over the level of human trafficking in the Maldives. Though local NGOs have long voiced concerns over the treatment of, and rights afforded to, foreign workers, successive governments have neglected the issue. Officials within the current government estimate that there are 30,000 ‘illegal’ or undocumented workers in the Maldives, a country with a population of around 393,000 as of July 2014. As with everything in the archipelago nation comprised of hundreds of island communities not always easily accessible from the capital Malé, approaches to data gathering can prove wildly inconsistent. Official estimates are often seen as conservative.

Bangladeshi nationals are the most populous and visible group of peoples affected by the Maldives’ approach to migrant labour.

In recent years, unions such as the Maldives Association of Construction Industry (MACI), which represents one of the largest employers of foreign labour, have alleged that the number of unregistered workers exceeded 50,000 and could well be close to 100,000 across the country. The issue has been exacerbated over the last decade, with tens of thousands of foreign workers – largely from Bangladesh – paying recruiters personal fortunes of up to several thousand dollars after being promised jobs at island resorts that rarely, if at all, exist. Upon arrival to the Maldives, significant numbers of these workers find themselves abandoned by recruiters. Others are left without documentation of any sort, with employers illegally confiscating passports, resulting in large queues of workers seeking consular assistance or disappearing into a black market of labour.

Immigration sources requesting anonymity have spoken of ad-hoc recruiters collecting the wronged workers at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) to work on projects or be shipped off to perform domestic work for a fraction of the wage they had been promised. Immigration officials have likewise warned that the thousands of workers who take up these ‘opportunities’ could be on any one of the hundreds of islands spread across the archipelago. Their fates are usually unknown. Many of these workers – often lacking formal skills, knowledge of the local dialect and proof of their own identity – go from job to job, either as labourers, waiters, cashiers or domestic help, mostly on the country’s inhabited islands rather than the resort industry. Unregulated and unrepresented, many migrants look for whatever paid work they can find. The real money, it seems, is taken by agents in the Maldives and recruiters in the workers’ country of origin. Ultimately, it is the construction industry that has benefited from this influx of cheap foreign labour. For many young Maldivians, labouring on construction sites is a less-than-glamorous pursuit, and lacks the accoutrements of success, such as tablet devices and tailored suits.

So profitable has the migrant labour business become that labour demand has itself been distorted in order to create a highly lucrative industry for agents, recruiters and traffickers. Two years ago, sources from the country’s immigration department alleged that their colleagues were failing to verify and prevent companies from submitting fictitious contracts or structural designs to obtain a disproportionately high quota of foreign workers. “Companies are recruiting people for their own financial benefit,” one senior immigration official said on condition of anonymity. “They are producing the image that they are in need of labour.” The official pointed to the level of abuse that he believed was possible under the system. He said that, in theory, a Maldivian company could submit plans for a building, such as a major sporting stadium, and then be given a computer-generated quota of foreign workers that could be assigned to ‘work’ on the structure.

Amid concerns at the plight of foreign workers, in recent years, some officials have directly expressed their grievances regarding labour rights and trafficking. Selena Moshin, the Bangladesh High Commissioner to the Maldives between 2008 and 2010, used her time in the role to warn that the value of human trafficking of Bangladeshi nationals alone was worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and rivalled fishing as the second largest contributor to the Maldives’ economy. Her successors have been less outspoken on these issues, even as staff deal with significant numbers of workers finding themselves stranded or facing deportation from the Maldives.

Moshin continues to speak out. Writing in the Dhaka Tribune in March 2014, Moshin said that for the estimated 70,000 migrant workers of Bangladeshi origin in the Maldives, “dubious recruitment processes” continue to be the norm. Well-documented examples exist of passports being seized by employees and wages withheld on arrival. Moshin wrote:

The work is arduous and the danger of death is quite prevalent. The situation is dreadful.

As high commissioner (2008-2010) I found that on an average one Bangladeshi worker died each week. For instance one died from poisonous fumes while cleaning a well. He was just 22 years of age. While Bangladeshi labourers were constructing a resort villa, over a lagoon, a wooden pole fell over one of them and he died from head injury. Such events occurred regularly… There was no legal requirement for compensation but as the bodies of the deceased could not be buried without clearance from the Bangladesh mission, we were able to negotiate with the employers. It was sometimes possible to get an employer to remit $500 to the family of the deceased – a small price to pay for a human life.

Moshin’s comments were made as the Maldives announced it was closing its mission in Bangladesh on 1 April 2014. “It is surprising that because there is a financial crunch in Maldives now, the new government is to close its mission in Bangladesh, which supplies so many migrant workers, while the one in Pakistan remains open although they supply none,” Moshin noted. Despite a different approach on the part of subsequent embassy officials, Moshin is not alone in her concerns about the treatment of foreign workers in the country.

Local NGO Transparency Maldives is one among a number of groups to document abuses within the Maldives’ immigration system. “Just minutes from Maldives’ luxury resorts, migrants from countries such as Bangladesh and India work excessive hours on dangerous, exhausting tasks. When they’re finished, they sleep in shifts, often sharing cramped rooms with more than 50 other people,” said the NGO in a report published in July 2014. In contradiction to the country’s well-cultivated reputation as a tourist paradise, Transparency Maldives argued that a very different existence awaited migrants lured to work in the country. Transparency claimed that it had been working to help an estimated 560 migrant workers navigate a “complex and foreign legal system” by explaining to workers their rights.

“Already, we’ve assisted 560 people with their complaints. We’ve seen people secure the money they need to return home to their families, or reclaim months of unpaid wages,” the organisation claimed in its report. However, Transparency Maldives itself accepted that the efforts have assisted only a fraction of those most in need of help, with a much wider issue being the systematic corruption it claimed had allowed exploitation to thrive. “The government needs to do more. We need to do more. These people need our support,” Transparency said of the current situation.

Human battery farms
Bangladeshi nationals are the most populous and visible group of peoples affected by the Maldives’ approach to migrant labour. Anyone walking the back streets of Malé is likely to find cramped, makeshift accommodation for foreign labourers of Bangladeshi origin at frequent intervals. Whether in the partially built insides of a construction site or a windowless iron shed housing dozens of workers in battery farming-style conditions, a migrant worker’s sanctuary often consists of nothing more than sheet metal roofs and some crudely erected walls.

In contradiction to the country’s well-cultivated reputation as a tourist paradise, Transparency Maldives argued that a very different existence awaited migrants lured to work in the country.

In Malé, which is often cited as an example of one of the world’s most densely populated and crowded capital cities, the plight of Bangladeshis is the most obvious example of the country’s underwhelming labour practices. But Bangladeshis are not alone, nor is the manner in which they are exploited unique. In October 2013, the Indian High Commission in Malé went to the media alleging hundreds of cases over the space of three months where its nationals had found themselves facing deportation without receiving due earnings. A senior source for the commission said at the time that institutions, including the police, immigration officials and foreign ministry, were all suspected of failing to fulfil their duties, if not “deliberately encouraging” mistreatment of foreigners. The allegations followed months of tension over the treatment and services provided to Indian expatriates, including teachers and doctors who had found themselves stranded in the Maldives and unable to leave due to administrative failures by their employers. One teacher was alleged to have been stranded in the capital for weeks, missing her own wedding due to officials failing to complete required paperwork and payments.

In some cases, expatriates from India, the UK, the US and the Philippines have previously been unable to leave the country as a result of issues with visa documentation attributable to the negligence of state authorities or former employers. Many of those shared their experiences with local media after being unable to leave the country for several days. For one British national who was turned away at the airport as she attempted to return to the UK for Christmas, being stuck in the Maldives wasn’t quite the experience one might imagine. Her former employer had failed to pay the required registration fees.

Having demanded intervention by the then Maldivian government in 2013 over a number of visa issues, a source within the Indian High Commission in the Maldives said there had been definite improvements from its perspective in terms of worker treatment and trafficking. A more optimistic appraisal of the plight of foreign workers has also been noted – albeit with a significant amount of caution – by the US government.

In June 2014, following several years of warnings and potential sanctions, the US State Department removed the Maldives from the Tier 2 Watch List for human trafficking. The Maldives had avoided relegation to Tier 3, which would have seen significant restrictions put on the country. Relegation to Tier 3 is reserved for states that are neither meeting the minimum requirements to eliminate trafficking, nor making concerted efforts to do so. In announcing its decision to remove the Maldives from the Tier 2 Watch List, US authorities cited the passing of an anti-trafficking law in late 2013 and efforts to open a shelter in the capital for victims of trafficking as reasons for its decision. The report did, however, note “serious problems” regarding enforcement and protection of workers’ rights. “The Government of Maldives does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so,” read the report, which noted that the country had been classed in the Tier 2 bracket, and was no longer being ‘watched’.

In 2014, President Yameen’s government stepped up efforts to curb the population of undocumented foreign workers. That year, the Maldives Department of Immigration and Emigration said 8815 foreign workers were deported from the Maldives for “numerous reasons”. Of this figure, 282 were said to have been expelled from the Maldives for criminal offences, while 122 companies and private parties were fined for illegally hiring workers. The department has pledged to further reduce the number of undocumented foreign workers in the Maldives throughout 2015. In the past, organisations such as the Human Rights Commission of Maldives have raised concerns over government commitments to target the repatriation of a specific numeric quota of migrant workers. The organisation cited the possibility of workers finding themselves punished for the actions of employers and agents acting outside the law, and called on the state to provide workers their due wages.

As the Maldives faced another constitutional crisis in March 2015, and international concerns were being voiced over the government’s conduct concerning the trials of former president Mohamed Nasheed and the dismissed defence minister Mohamed Nazim, the majority of the Maldives’ migrant workers struggled on as usual. In the soap opera-like politics of the Maldives’ transition from autocracy to democracy (and back again), for tens of thousands of migrants without a voice, the drama is little more than a sideshow.

The luxury of tedium
Why then, do workers keep coming? During my own time in the Maldives, a former colleague from Bangladesh had been held in detention for two weeks after being arrested by police for taking a second job as a night security guard in Maĺe. He had not realised his documentation was no longer legitimate.  Yet despite being detained in a special compound while facing the threat of deportation, he argued that the Maldives offered better prospects than Bangladesh could. Even after he found himself seriously ill, and dependent on one of his employers to cover the costs of life-saving treatment for internal bleeding, he saw returning home as the worst possible outcome. His own son, a graduate from Bangladesh with qualifications in computing, was considering joining him for whatever work he might find. “He doesn’t believe there is anything out there for him,” my colleague once confided.

As a former migrant worker in the Maldives, the challenges I experienced were largely benign. During my struggle to legitimise myself as a foreign worker, I was informed after several months that a foreign national could not deal with the Maldives’ immigration department alone. With much tolerance and patience from friends and colleagues, my paperwork was eventually cleared and my legal identity was restored. But I still could not collect my documentation and passport. As I attempted to collect them, an immigration official asked, “Where is your owner?” Some 24 hours later, my ‘owner’ was able to claim and return to me my documents. In time I was able to leave the Maldives and seek employment elsewhere of my own free will. At present, thousands of other workers do not have that chance, and remain prisoners in someone else’s paradise.

~This article is from our latest quarterly issue Labour and its Discontents (March 2015).

~Neil Merrett is a former deputy editor of Minivan News, a Maldives-based current affairs publication. Now residing in London, he tries to make sense of the role technology is playing in the struggle to make the British public sector semi-efficient.

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