Comment: Pigeons and slaves

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?

Understanding why

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?

Social Negligence

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.

Government Negligence

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.


24 thoughts on “Comment: Pigeons and slaves”

  1. all of this is true...but we have heard of similar things before. when the current president nasheed was campaigning for power on the streets we thought he would give these kind of rights of people the priority....but the only people he found whose rights had been lost were apparently jailed criminals and people smoking weed, ganja or whatever. and priority soon changed to the usual stuff maumoon had given priority to...

    you are also a politician now salim waheed. its hard to accept any of what you have written here as genuine knowing your political links. what we need is less of politicians and more of activists with no political ambitions.

  2. I have seen a Maldivian fiercely fight for universal human rights and human dignity and then treat his Bangladeshi slave like crap. That was an interesting example of how selfish AND self deluded, self deceived we human beings really all are. We jump and down for universal human rights when it is in our personal interests to do so.

    If a Maldivian could spend 6 months in the shoes of the most oppressed Bangladeshi laborer would he/she learn true universal social justice?

    Yeah, most of us think we are so damn just and moral and humanitarian when we are making a loud noise about justice, etc... but reality is most of us are as selfish as hell - so selfish that we our own brain hides the reality of our selfishness from our conscious awareness to save our self esteem the disgrace of realizing we are not really great! I am the same, but making efforts to change though it is damn well harder to do than to SAY!!!

    Well, as you said, Salim, it's about time we all learnt the truth about ourselves, and begin to truly stretch our hearts beyond painful as that actually is in practice...

    Goes for me also...

    Until we can care when there is no benefit in it for us to care, until we can care to the point of risking our own selves to care, until we can hurt for the wellbeing of others when there is NOTHING in it for us, then we have not learnt to put true justice, true mercy and therefore Allah, the Creator before ourselves and therefore, our Ibadah (our worship or our service) is to ourselves and not to Allah... and we are Taghut, Shirk, idolators...

    Justice will never prevail, compassion will never prevail in a society until there arises those who are capable of placing justice and compassion above their own needs and safety.

    This is why it is said that the measure of our humanity is the measurement of our capacity to suffer for wellbeing of others, for justice...

    This is what a true hero is, one who can achieve this. One who puts others before self in this manner touches all others with mercy, and this type of mercy is a touch of Rahman, a touch of Justice... and therefore, a touch of the Divine!

  3. Well, the other thing is is that, this is not information that we do not already know in our heads. Jummah prayer, also hearing, strive for the oppressed (Surah 4: 75) man is no Muslim till he desires for himself which he desires for his brother (Are Bangladeshi's not oppressed, are they not Muslim???) We are told every Friday, true islam is Azhabbiya with all the Ummah, that is, deep solidarity with all the Muslims and the Hadith's also say that Muslims are like a solid structure support one another and also say Muslims are one body (LIKE) if one hurts all hurt... I think, true Ibadah, true Islam, is to put this into practice, because, Allah is Justice, Allah is Mercy, so when we put Justice and Mercy above ourselves we are putting Allah above ourselves and this is true worship, for me, this is the essence of J-H-D, Divine struggle... I also believe that divine struggle, in a Muslim society such as Maldives must strictly be non-violent!!!!

    I am relating all this to religion seems it is Ramadan, but also, seems Maldives is 100 percent Muslim I thought this religious language is the most meaningful and inspirational to convey the 'be kind to Bangladeshi's message' to Maldivians. Or is the reverse true? Are you guys are so fed up with 100 percent Islam that it has become nauseating and hypocritical sounding to hear it related to everything!!! I wonder if anyone would bother answering that question for me?

  4. maldivians discriminate manual labourers and wen it comes to senior positions in companies and resorts, maldivians treated bad... and in resorts run by some maldivians and resorts run by foreign companies they treat maldivians as slaves! ! we have to teach these resort owners who has the real power..MASSES!! get there! strike often..and if that doesnt solves go for confrontation and destruction too!!

  5. A step in the right direction, expressed as it may have been- the aversion this article would incite is easy, very easy. However when we do a reality check we would soon realise our fate is in their hands.

  6. When the rights of Maldivians are violated by the government of President Nasheed and Vice President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik, I'm not surprised that foreigners dont get their rights in the Maldives. Once Maldivians get a decent and honest government the rights of foreigners will also be guaranteed.

  7. Difficult issues regarding human standards of living must find a voice in the public space for proper reflection and in order to find lasting solutions. The issues of racism, intolerance, abusive attitudes, etc perceived as prevalent in Maldivian society, can only be openly discussed and debated in a social and physical environment that tolerate airing such issues.I believe it is through open discussion and reasoning that we can explore the differences in other cultures. Such exploration of the other can help Maldivians in appreciating the differences and also the links. The Bangladeshi poet and world thinker Rabindranath Tagore and his vision of tolerance is worth reflecting upon. Also, the connections and links of our language Dhivehi with Sanskrit and Pali show us how our way of life and identity are entwined with the cultures in the region and beyond. We are but one among the families of the world.

    In comparing our way of life and when we specifically make value judgments, I detect a certain practice of the absence of 'western values' as a yardstick to determine the standard of development in a given society. Perhaps if we examined the Maldives Civilization as a whole, and search our ancient history, we may find attitudes and practices that promoted tolerance and sympathy for the other...
    I have a feeling your generation is keen to find out if such attitudes existed in these island communities in a previous era.
    Thank you for the article.

  8. thanks salim, nice article, well done. i totally share your view and also agree that all the problems we are facing today needs to be addressed properly and this is only in the hands of todays government and their administration.

    i am glad that someone is addressing this ever growing issue also being objective and without having a false patriotism.

    labor law, minimum wages should not only be applied to maldivians. it should be made for all and it should be ensured that anyone working in the maldives gets the basic human rights to live with dignity.

  9. Wonderful article. I'm so happy that some one has addressed all of our more racist tendencies. That someone has explained clearly why there are so many Bengalis hanging around everywhere and a simple way to stop it. To get rid of illegal people. Also to start respecting peoplle, because we are all racist just a little and we need to change.

  10. In some jobs Maldivains are treated equally badly, if not worse. It would have been useful if you had mentioned the thousands of Maldivains in resorts without training opportunities who ended up working for Europeans in top professional posts. Tourism industry in Maldives is over 35 years but still rely on foreign professionals for top earning posts.. If your intention is to highlight the treatment of workers in general, that is a more crucial national issue. Don't Maldivans have the right to train and occupy high posts?

    On the other hand if you are concerned about hordes of cheap foreign labour taking up your living space in Male, you cannot blame them. Its not their fault that half Maldivains (in their wisdom) decided to live in a miniscule place called Male.

    if you are concerned about Banladesh people working in Maldives, stop bringing them. Simple as that. Frankly, I fail to see the point you are making other than blaming foreign workers for the stupidity of Maldivan policy makers.

  11. The only way to bring en end to exploitation of Bangladeshi National would be in the hands of Bangladesh Government. They should be the one who should be looking after their citizens. The rogue elements will always play dirty games for economic benefits. Lot of local companies is taking quotas to make money out of it by misleading and exploiting these poor Bangladeshis. Since this is known to everyone, why Bangladeshi Government can’t put a ban on its citizen to work in Maldives?. It is so simple, all this violation of human rights and abuse of their people will stop. Why Bangladeshi Government should be more concern to provide cheap laborers to Maldives at the expense of their countrymen’s fundamental rights.

  12. Surely we aren't all that xenophobic!

  13. Salim, i suggest you become the vice president instead of Dr Waheed. thank you

  14. Hi Jeff,
    Your whole article is completely contradicted by the tone you express towards these "foreign aliens". You serve only to stigmatise foreign workers further. They are people, very similar to you and I. And yet your attitude, and that of most Maldivians, believe they have some kind of God-given right to treat these people as inferior. Even when the same people treat other "aliens" - western tourists - with respect and civility. Real patriots realise that freedom and equality - for all people - are what make a country great.

  15. The alien infiltration into Maldives is a mess done by the previous government and the lazy Maldivian people themselves. This is the truth and now it is going to be very difficult to get rid of these aliens.

  16. i love the article.. tears in my eyes when “feed them, shelter them, and massage their feet.” came up.. but pissed me off to see them runaway from that too. Well hope this article is read by our racist politicians and businessman. I am not a racist. I appreciate most foreigners.

  17. The article is good, but I disagree with you about the minimum wage.

    Wage is determined by the level of productivity of an employee. These depend on education, skill, experience etc. Those with better education, larger skillset and more experience are usually paid higher.

    By putting a minimum wage, you are in effect saying, those of you who do not have the skill/education/experience enough to find a job that someone will pay you higher should not offer their services. In other words, they should find a job a job for X per hour, even if his skillset can get him only a job that is paid less than X.

    Suppose, currently, an unskilled labourer is paid 1000/- month. And skilled mason is paid 2000/- month. What do you think will happen if the minimum wage is raised to say 2000/-? If an employer has to pay 2000/- anyway, they will hire skilled masons as labourers. They cannot hire by law a labourer for 1000/-. This causes unemployment among the populace that r the least skilled.

    If minimum wage is the supposed solution? Why don't we mandate that minimum wage law be 10,000/-? or 20,000/-? Would that solve the wage problem? or Will it cause mass unemployment?

    Proponents of minimum wage say that minimum wage laws do not cause 'much' unemployment. And they are correct. This is because minimum wage is set close to or nearby the normal market minimum wage. As such, the unemployment is less. But if there is any unemployment, it will be the ones least skilled that will be put out of work.

    Lets take another example.
    If you put a minimum fee price for lawyers, those laywers who are the least experienced will be the most affected. They will have difficulty finding clients.

  18. Just to mention an important point at this very crucial moment... A few months ago Minivan news published an article about the US State Department’s report on human trafficking in Maldives -

    In that the US has heavily criticised the Maldives for its record on foreign employment. Leaving aside the US violations of human rights in its so-called “War on terror” and the benefits of extraterritoriality which always saves the United States from the domestic laws of the victim nations, the US has not criticised Saudi Arabia for its astonishingly bad record on foreign employment. To give an example – the case of a Sri Lankan maid who was recently operated on to remove nails that had been hammered into her body by her employer -

    However xenophobic we Maldivians might be, we do not have a similar record as Saudi Arabia. Having worked in this field I have met numerous foreign employees both male and female who claimed extreme abuses at the hands of their Saudi employers. Some maids managed to run away from their employers to seek refuge with the Police and their respective embassies, only to be handed over back to their employers to continue the abuse and torture. Some of them sought the easiest way out – suicide. I also asked some of them why they had given up the high wages in Saudi Arabia and come to a low income country like the Maldives. Some of them cited the torture that they endured at the hands of their Saudi employers. Others however claimed that it was easy to circumvent the laws in Maldives and easier to work illegally. Why then has the United States abstained from criticising Saudi Arabia? And the answer is, it has an enormous oil reserve which the US cannot function without. Now can the US condemn Saudi with similar statements? The answer is clearly NO!

    Salim, I understand that you’re very proud to hold an American citizenship and the values and principles that America stands for. But don’t you think the pursuit of “selfish economic interests” by the United States, under the guise of spreading democracy and value for human rights is not very ideal after all?

    Returning to the article, your arguments are sound. Yes you’re right in stating that “National dignity and pride can only be achieved when we uphold the dignity of all of those within our borders.” But that also raises the question of addressing the issues at the core of this problem. You cannot just side with the employees and claim all Maldivian employers as disregarding the rights of their workers. Some employees have absconded because they get higher wages working illegally. Just as much as I appreciate that there is a problem on all sides (some employers and some employees, brokers both foreign and local, embassies, the Department of Immigration, Labour Ministry, Airport Authorities dealing with immigration issues and the Police), you cannot lay the blame entirely on any one of these parties. We as a society are responsible too.

    I do applaud this attempt to raise awareness on foreign employment in the Maldives by various bloggers such as you and especially Minivan news (which is not very balanced at times when considering the enormity of this problem). The solution is to get down to working and clearing out the mess which we have created for ourselves. And that will not happen when able persons like you just sit there and write blogs instead of using the government machinery to bring about the change you advocate.

  19. Jeff - thanks for opening the issue up.

    @ Ben : I don't think too many of us want to think about the inherent value system which makes Islam a way of life, or rethink preconceived notions we hold about Islam (for whatever reason), so to many it does becomes a nuisance or ridiculous and counterproductive, and others tend to tune out perhaps. Also I think many of us see problems as being created by someone else, or just too big to be able to do anything about it ourselves as individuals - despite the fact that everything is controlled by human individuals, be it within households, businesses or governments. And the fact that taking individual responsibility is the only way to effect change.

    @ sanskrit : yes indeed - 'exploration of the other' that is a given in many other countries due to racial diversity as well as better integration of visitors with locals, is a missing link in Maldives. Depictions of foreign lifestyles on various tv series, or through student life, often becomes ingrained as reality, both among youth and others. I've often thought that Maldivian producers could also depict a more positive outlook on life beyond the jinni stories and the violent and broken family dramas. But perhaps that is also an outcome of thinking within our own limited boundaries, and the only way to ensure a decent financial return.

  20. Considering the status of the Maldivian media, I must admit that raising issues like those in this article in the public domain is in itself a difficult task. Having said that, I also am aware that pointing fingers at this stage (or at anytime) is not constructive or helpful.

    State as well as the private media is providing programmes that they claim to be the choice of their audience. NGOs and individual producers interested in creating public awareness can become instrumental in raising these topics for public discussion and reflection.

    As long as we just copy Indian/Western culture and manufacture a false identity, we are bound to remain backward as a society.

    To my knowledge, state broadcaster MNBC (or the former TVM) has up-to-date never conducted an audience research in their life. How can they produce any useful programme, educational or commercial, if they pretend to know everything, without conducting any scientific research or survey?

    Salim should continue airing his many concerns in any media available.

  21. so maldivians feels bad when they are treated badly by their resort employers! you ugly slime balls, only when you wear the shoe you know where it bites.

    pity the foreigners who work for us. how bad they must be feeling when we dont respect them.


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