The US State Department’s continued placing of the Maldives on the ‘Tier Two Watch-List for Human-Trafficking’ could not have come at a worse – or better – time for the country’s authorities, particularly those intent on finding a way out for good.
Coming as it does after specific issues flagged by India over the past months, the US warning that Maldives could automatically slip into the ‘Tier Three’ [watchlist] with consequential sanctions of a non-humanitarian kind should be seen as a wake-up call for Male’ to set right matters, which have been allowed to drift for decades now.
At the bottom of the Maldivian plight should be the surge in development and growth inconsistent with the expectations and consequent preparations of the nation – particularly in the tourism sector – over the past three or four decades.
While successive governments have continued with the original policy of allowing foreign investors in big-time resort tourism to expatriate their earnings in dollars, this has also made wages less attractive for locals, with their relative perception of higher educational qualifications, to take up those jobs that are otherwise on offer.
This has led to an anomaly. While local youth can do with more and better-paying jobs, to match the very high cost of living in the country, the employer class on all fronts are dependent on immigrant labour to meet their needs. Thus, for a nation of 350,000, Maldives has an additional expatriate labour population totalling a conservative 100,000.
The US State Department estimate puts the figure upwards of 150,000. It is also the only major ‘labour recipient’ nation in South Asia, with most of them coming from Bangladesh and India, in that order but roughly in 5:3 ratio or thereabouts, followed by Sri Lanka – which used to be the dominant player, including the skills and white-collar sectors, earlier.
Better emigrant laws, regulations and enforcement in countries such as Sri Lanka and the Philippines, from where again immigrant labour have been working in Maldives, have made the country less attractive for the work-force from those destinations.
Learning from elsewhere
Maldives can learn from the US and the rest of the west, which as ‘labour-receiving nations’ not only have strict laws and enforcement, but have also become stricter with issuance of visas for immigrant employees – most of them of the white-collar, technocrat variety.
The US still however receives a large number of unskilled and semi-skilled labour from across the border with Mexico. Both the more regulated white-collar immigration and at times illegal immigration of Mexican labour have become hot election issue in the country, entailing government intervention.
Even in the Gulf-Arab region, for which south and South-East Asian nations have been providing the labour class in large numbers from the seventies, if not earlier, constant governmental pressure from overseas (alone) seems to have done the trick. There, the trend is getting reversed lately, with the locals too competing with the immigrants for the fewer available jobs.
Some of the Gulf nations have already begun following the west, in restricting employment opportunities for immigrants to facilitate better job opportunities for the locals.
Not just the Maldives as a nation, but Maldivians society as a whole can benefit from the authorities approaching the immigrant labour issue with an open mind, and raising the standard of labour protection to international levels.
At present, the (hospitality) industry (construction) infrastructure and household sectors are major employers of immigrant labour. Other than the high-end segments of the hospitality industry, others in these sectors do not address issues of labour concern – including minimum and sustainable wages, job-protection, legal remedies in case of employer wrong-doing, including with-holding of employee-passport and criminal intimidation, threats and at times attacks.
Ignorant and vulnerable
All these have made the immigrant labour class vulnerable in more ways than one.
With-holding of passports and non-extension of work-permits by the employer automatically renders the employee ‘illegal immigrant’, culpable to punitive punishment under the local laws. Seldom has there been a case of the authorities acting against the culprit-employer – or, working with host-governments to break the ‘job-racketeer network’, which often exploit the illiteracy and/or ignorance of the migrant labour class in particular.
Some of the insensitivity, if it can be called so, may also owe to the large-scale employment of immigrant labour in the household sector, where long hours of work for relatively low wages may have blinded the officialdom and the political class to the impossibility of the existing situation. The politico-administrative insensitivity to addressing the issues on hand may have been a product of the process.
This is seldom acknowledged, even less acted upon. The trend may have to change, with the political class taking the lead. Thus, the government should initiate legislative and legal measures to ensure fixed timings, minimum wages and other benefits and security for the migrant labour also in the household sector. The message would then spread.
If however, linkages are made between better labour/employee conditions and enforcement, the Maldivian Government would be in a position to attract its youthful population to productive sectors of the nation’s economy, thus churning out a possible process of social re-engineering.
In the absence of such pro-active measures, society has been complaining against itself that their youth power has been exhausting itself on unproductive goals and an ‘unfinished’ work culture.
The Maldivian Government has programmes against drug-abuse and rehabilitation addressing its youth, which otherwise constitutes over 40 per cent of the population. The dependence on the migrant labour could also become less, if only over a period.
A fourth major sector employing emigrant workers is the maldivian government, which has been recruiting teachers, doctors and nurses from countries such as India, which may also be the single largest supplier of white-collar workers of the high-skilled variety in the country.
As instances have been reported in the past, even government authorities have been in the habit of retaining the passports of Indians and other foreigners, at times recruited through shady job-agents.
This by itself may ensure the safety and security of the passports for the immigrant worker, as long as it is voluntary. But the unwarranted and avoidable delays in returning the passport when an employee had to rush back home for an emergency has caused issues both to the affected people and the host governments, which come under continual pressure from their constituencies in very many ways.
In the Maldivian context, it also means that an overseas employer returning home on an emergency call might have to spend an indefinite number of days at Male, spending heavily on an otherwise purposeless stay, to collect the passport. It is unfortunate that the recent Indian decision on registration for Indian visas for Maldivians has caused a similar problem for people from the interior islands with no relation or friend to put up with while in Male, which anyway is a crowded place for them to take such conventional courtesies for granted, any more.
In the famous ‘Menaka Gandhi case’ in 1979, otherwise, the Indian Supreme Court, for instance, had held that the passport of an Indian citizen was the property of the Government of India. It also implied that confiscation/retention of the same without proper legal authority and authorisation (even by Indian Government authorities) could tantamount to an act against the Indian sovereign, entailing the government of India to initiate appropriate measures – if some affected citizen were to approach the courts in India for redress.
Today, much is being said about the Government of India regulating the visa procedure for Maldivian nationals who visit India for medical care and education, their number being upwards of 50,000 each year.
Suggestions have also linked the matter to the controversial ‘GMR issue’. Maldivians wanting to travel to India on work or medical care in particular may have suffered, but there have not been any reported case of the visas for ’emergency patients’ and their attendants either being denied or even delayed, since.
If anything, the Indian authorities in Male’ are said to have prioritised such cases for fast-tracking visa issuance, though there is this avoidable tension for the next of kin who want to travel to India with their relation for emergency medical care.
Over the years, there have also been other cases of Maldivian employers, including the government, holding back passports, denying Indian immigrant employees to visit their dying kin, or lit the pyre of a dead parent, which also has great religious and spiritual significance for most Indians in particular.
What is not often known in Maldives – including the local media, which is otherwise sensitive to the perceived plight of Maldivians, likewise — is that many of these cases make waves in the high-literacy Kerala State in particular, where the media is as well networked as families.
Light at the end of the tunnel?
Lately, there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel. The government of President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik has started addressing some of the international concerns, including those of India’s.
The immigration authorities have notified that it is illegal for employers to hold back the passports of foreign labour – and the Indian High Commission, maybe among others, in Male has given adequate publicity for the same. Between them, the Maldivian Immigration and the IHC have also put in place a system for prior clearance for the High Commission for employer-recruiters sourcing emigrant labour from India.
Indian immigrant labour in Maldives has also been advised to route their work-permit, passport, etc, through the High Commission’s consular authorities – entailing additional workload for its staff. If found successful, it is not unlikely that the Indian government may (have to) consider extending the process to other embassies, especially in such countries with similar problems.
For foreign employees of the Maldivian government, a decision is said to be on the anvil for the passport-holders to retain their original document.
For others, particularly the lower-end labour class, a via media would still have to be found as they may still not be able to have a safe place to secure their passports and work-permits other than the custody of their employers, some of whom tend to abuse the trust and faith in more ways than one.
Indians may be among the most visible of beneficiaries in this case, their homes not being not far away from the Maldivian coasts could save on time, cost and avoidable agony by not having to camp in high-cost Male’ for a couple of days to collect their passport, after the authorities in the islands and their respective departments had cleared their leave applications.
Otherwise, a government proposal before Maldivian Parliament to clear extradition treaty would help in facilitating prisoner-swap between the two countries, for nationals of one country convicted in the other could undergo their prison-terms, if any, in their native land. Given the limited healthcare facility in Maldives, Indian prisoners would benefit from such a course. It could still be open if Maldivian prisoners in India could choose to spent their terms in Indian jails, or otherwise.
Distracted by democratisation?
It is possible that the turn of political events centred on the advent of multi-party democracy over the past several years may have distracted Maldives, and diffused its attention from equally pressing issues like those flagged by the US Report and highlighted by the specified Indian concern. Yet, the world does not wait for Maldives to set its political house in order – as a succession of US/UN reports on human trafficking and human rights have shown over the past years.
It is sad that a succession of political leadership in the country over the past years had not found the time — and more so the inclination — to address the larger issues cited in the annual reports of the US State Department – which for right reasons and wrong, have come to be acknowledged as bench-mark of an international kind, whether or not one likes it or not.
The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation
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