Our city is not an easy place in which to live. Generally more expensive than any other capital in the region, Male’ is crowded beyond capacity. A thousand motorcycles line every road, cars without places to park at every turn, and the smog created by both suffocating any who dare to walk. Not only are our sidewalks too small, but our homes too overstuffed. Electricity, water, food; the list goes on and on.
And when it all just gets to be too much, we escape to where we can. The Artificial Beach, Jumhooree Maidhan, anywhere to get some space. Yet as I walk along stone pavement to those few clearings we have, I turn my head and look around and I do not see my countrymen. I do not see my people taking respite. As many pigeons as I see in my Republican Square, can I see foreigners crowding my spaces as well. In every direction that I turn, I am alienated in a space that is mine.
In my youth I would want to banish these usurpers. I would want these spaces cordoned off so that a National Identity Card would be required to enter this bare ground, these sanctuaries. Pigeons and foreigners both, I wanted to get rid of them. I wanted my spaces back. We deal with constant societal tension and neglect, and to demand a space for the release of such tension was my right. I ignored the tug at the back of my mind calling these thoughts racist, and refused to accept the dignity of others over the xenophobic tendencies which seem to run through my veins. But now I look back and have to ask: Is it really true? Is such constant and persistent (maybe even mild in some instances, but still ever-present) hatred so deeply rooted within our nation?
I was offended through my national pride that our national places were not ours anymore.
But maybe national pride is supposed to be more than outward patriotism. Maybe it’s working towards getting jobs for the 50 percent of youth who are without them. Maybe it’s addressing the government problems so that there are fewer foreign workers and no illegal aliens. It may even be ensuring those who remain are treated with respect and dignity. Should this not be part of our national pride? Should not all human dignity be part of our patriotism and duty?
But to move beyond our annoyance at them for being here and the illusion that it is a necessary annoyance, we must come to understanding.
Why are there workers in the country?
Why are they treated badly?
Why are there so many illegal aliens?
Why are more workers continually being brought in spite of this?
And how do we fix it?
These foreign workers are here because there is a demand. Everything a Maldivian can do, a foreigner can do cheaper. Why can they do it cheaper? Not because they are more capable, or that all Maldivians are inherently lazy, but for the very reason they are treated badly.
They are not provided adequate housing, or basic needs such as sustenance. And when the cost going into them is so little, they can afford to offer themselves cheaply as it is their only means to survival. Fundamental human rights and levels of comfort we would demand as a basic need is so far beyond them that it is not their immediate concern. As the defenders and apologists of dictators the world over often say: What starving man thinks of rights?
But in this case we have collectively robbed them of their rights. Of their very human dignity. These men and women are brought here to live in squalid conditions and we allow it because someone has to do the job. So we justify injustice and go about our daily lives.
Why is it that people do not see, that if we just raise their basic standards of living to something that is acceptable to us, we would be able to encourage more Maldivians to enter their workforce as well? Why is it that we refuse to put a minimum wage standard for foreigners when we fought so hard to have it applied to ourselves? Why is it that even the foreign labourers that were employed by the government were only paid $50 USD a month up until recent years when it was increased to a $100 USD?
If we place a reasonable minimum wage, require basic necessities such as housing, bedding, water (to drink and wash), and food to be provided to those labourers brought in, then we even the playing field. Maldivians will be able to be competitive. As someone who owns a share in a construction company, I refuse the excuse that this will bankrupt our companies. I refuse the excuse that it is fiscally unviable. And I refuse any other excuse that would put basic human dignity and rights beyond one’s reach.
The reason why there are so many illegal aliens is because people in the government (previous and current, legislative and executive) have not cared to address the situation properly. They had other more important matters, vested interests, and always the threat from the entire business community to contend with. Why fix a system that is not really broken? After all, the businesses benefit from cheap labour and a couple illegals here or there only means they will be even cheaper to hire.
While this is the reasoning behind the reality, the practical reason why illegal alien growth persists is mostly due to the quota system.
But let me explain the entire procedure first: If you want to bring a labourer, your business has to be licensed by the Ministry of Economic Development. Then you have to apply to the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Labour, explaining the projects you have and why you need the labour to begin with. This Ministry then issues you a quota of workers you can bring in after making a half-hearted attempt at hiring Maldivians you don’t really want to deal with.
When you want to bring in your labourers, you contact a broker and get the Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Labour to issue you your work permits for these people. These work permits are then shown to the Immigration Department under the Ministry of Home Affairs and visas are issued on arrival.
The quota system is slightly ridiculous for two reasons.
Firstly, as former Bangladeshi Ambassador Professor Selina Mohsin mentioned, many quotas are created with inadequate proposals and flimsy justification for the number of people needed. Excess people are then loaned out to other companies.
Secondly, conditions are so bad for workers, that when they run away, the Ministry simply reissues the company who lost them with new work permits so that they can still have their quota of people.
If we ignore the first issue as easily rectifiable with greater vigilance, we’re left with the second problem. If a company loses their employees, they are forced to put out an advertisement showing who they lost. But this still means that they are left without enough labour to complete their project. So the Ministry feels obligated to issue them new work permits without so much as a slap on the wrist, essentially allowing even more people into the country without addressing those already here. The Immigration Department then has no choice but to offer visas to whomever new work permits are issued to.
No government administration has tried to penalise companies for losing people or for providing such inadequate housing and provision for employees. The government has not been active in trying to guarantee the rights of foreign workers, and there has been no thought of creating requirements of minimum wages, clean bedding, water for washing, and suitable sustenance for foreigners. Parliament and the Ministries have taken very little action.
The illegal hordes
The Labour Ministry’s solution was to document illegal aliens, and when people ran away from hostile work environments, they would make those here illegally take the runaway’s place. The business community revolted and we have seen little implementation of this practice since its inception.
The conditions are so bad that many would choose homelessness and destitution, begging for any work that is available so that they can survive. Many become runners for the local drug dealers and spend their days delivering these products of sin. Those who are lucky find Maldivian wives, who (as one person told me) then “feed them, shelter them, and massage their feet.”
Many who do this work for a while and make enough to return to their families in their places of origin, leaving their Maldivian wives without much recourse. This exploitation of Maldivian women caused the Immigration Department to enact regulations that ensure foreigners could provide for themselves and would not be leeches to their Maldivian partners.
But still more foreigners flee from their Maldivian masters and become illegal aliens in this country. And because they flee we bring in more and more people. Last month alone, over two thousand foreign labourers were brought into the country. At this rate, the foreign population in the Maldives will rival our own within our life time (sooner if we take into account our declining birthrate).
To deny a person basic needs, to make him dependent, but also desperate to get away is to make that man a slave.
That what we have in this country is referred to only as human trafficking not outright slave trade is something the government should be grateful for.
We need to change and be the instruments of that change. We need to pass legislation holding companies accountable. We need to respect foreigners’ basic right to human dignity, and put forward a minimum wage that will level the playing field between Maldivians and foreigners.
When more of us work side by side with them, we will have less hostility to those who are in our spaces. What is more, fewer of them will be there, and we will be content to share something that is ours, because we will not feel overwhelmed and isolated.
National dignity and pride can only be achieved when we uphold the dignity of all of those within our borders. When we recognise our prejudices and expunge our xenophobia as something unworthy and distasteful.