Almost half the employees in the Maldives’ construction industry are unregistered, the head of the Maldives Association of Construction Industry (MACI) has told Minivan News.
MACI President Mohamed Ali Janah said an estimated 40 percent of the foreign employees in the sector were thought not to be legally registered.
Considering these numbers, Janah said he could not rule out the involvement of organised crime in certain employment agencies, which supply a large amount of foreign labour to building sites in the Maldives.
Earlier this month, the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) accused state and private sector employers in the country of lacking consistency in their efforts to address human trafficking.
The government – for its part – recently launched a ‘blue ribbon’ campaign with the aim of raising awareness of the rights of foreign workers, while also ratifying eight “fundamental” International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions.
However, local independent institutions in the Maldives say the country is yet to ratify a core convention on protecting migrant worker rights, while no legislation is in place to punish those involved in smuggling workers.
Migrant worker demand
Janah claimed that 95 percent of construction groups operating in the country were Maldivian owned. However, as the country’s second largest industry on a GDP basis, the vast majority of employees in the sector were migrant workers, he said.
“We employ a huge workforce of some 60,000 to 70,000 people,” Janah explained. “Of these people, sadly we have 40,000 to 50,000 who are expatriates. We estimate there are some 15,000 to 20,000 Maldivian staff, which includes management through to the supply chain.”
Of these migrant labourers, Janah said only some 30,000 were registered as construction workers.
“There are no records of where [these workers] come from. This is something we need to correct,” he said.
Highlighting the huge growth in the country’s unregistered migrant workforce, Janah said that in 2003 there were just 3000 foreign employees working illegally.
“At the time we thought that number was too high. Today, it has exceeded 50,000. This is hearsay. We don’t have the right statistics on this, it could be 100,000, but who knows,” he said. “The truth is that the economy is thriving because of these people,” Janah added.
Over the last decade, MACI has said it has sought to advocate against the growth of illegal labour and mismanagement of foreign labourers by the construction industry.
A lack of Maldivian workers looking for jobs in the industry meant that the sector – as with many of the country’s prominent industries – was dependent on skilled and unskilled workers from abroad.
The Maldives could learn from how other thriving construction markets were dealing with the exploitation of foreign work forces, he said.
“The Maldives is experiencing what Singapore and some Middle Eastern countries experienced in the 1990’s, which is a huge influx of an unmanageable immigrant workforce that is not registered,” he explained.
“I cannot call them illegal immigrants or something like that. But I also wouldn’t rule out that organised crime is involved in this. This is being done with the support of several agencies in [several] countries and needs to be addressed – this is something respective governments need to look into.”
Aside from the construction industry, Janah also called for greater regulation of third party employment agencies that were often responsible for registering and providing foreign staff to building companies in the Maldives.
“[These agencies] pay a nominal fee to register themselves, yet they do millions of rufiyaa in business. They should pay a security deposit themselves in case something goes wrong,” he said.
Janah claimed said his own Maldives-based construction group, Alysen Services Pvt Ltd, had now opted against using third party agencies in favour of its own HR department. He said some eight to nine million rufiya was spent on deposits for foreign workers.
Accepting that employment agencies were vital to meeting the country’s workforce needs, he said MACI recommended its members look at the track record of these companies to limit the likelihood that the staff they were hiring were victims of human trafficking.
“Our advice is that employees themselves should not be charged any fees themselves by agencies to come here to work,” he said, a policy recommended to all MACI members as the best way to avoid association with organised crime.
Managing the workforce
However, Janah contended that managing the country’s foreign labour market was not something the industry could do alone, adding that government involvement was vital.
He pointed to a need to learn from different construction models not just in the region but internationally, pointing to other nations that have worked to legitimise foreign workers by requiring individual construction projects to be registered with local authorities.
With this registry in place, Janah said construction workers would then be required to be attached to a legitimate project in the country.
He also pointed to attempts by the former and present governments to provide an amnesty for unregistered workers in line with a similar scheme run in Dubai.
However, Janah stressed that Dubai’s amnesty was followed by a much stricter policy on migrant workers including the use of a “proper border control system”.
By comparison, he noted that successive administrations in the Maldives had failed to address human trafficking problems before implementing such an amnesty.
“The problem is that the government just adds rule after rule without addressing [immigration] problems,” Janah said, claiming that companies legitimately employing foreign workers were being forced to pay for the mistakes of others.
“There is collateral damage as a result of these policies. Many companies are suffering from the [work] permit issue.”
MACI contended that the worker quota system employed by Maldivian authorities in recent years made it possible to register a business as a construction company, even without fulfilling the “basic criteria” required of such an enterprise.
He said authorities should require construction companies to be registered not just as a business entity at the Ministry of Economic Development, but also with the Ministry of Housing.
However, the MACI president concluded that much more work needed to be done by the construction industry itself to try and curb the practice of unregistered workers to ensure they were not being made the victims of human trafficking.
“A lot more work needs to be done by industry. Companies who are entering the industry should not take short-cuts and must adhere to rules,” he said.
Janah added that a failure to address these concerns would not be feasible for the country in the long run, particularly with the amount of US dollars leaving the country as remittances.
“We need these workers,” Janah said. “But can we manage with less if we are more efficient?”
Janah also reiterated concerns raised by the Immigration Department and President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik that a continued influx of unregistered and illegal workers could see the migrant population outgrow the indigenous Maldives population if unchecked.
Earlier this month, a Maldivian trade union alleged corrupt immigration practices and the use of unregulated employment agencies by private and state employers were limiting efforts to curb abuse of migrant workers and prevent illegal practices such as retaining staff passports.
The comments were made as a source with knowledge of the current immigration system also told Minivan News that the practice of retaining passports – a long-standing habit of Maldivian employers – was a key contributor to human trafficking in the country.
Meanwhile, back in January, a Malaysian IT company at the centre of legal wrangling over a deal to provide a border control system (BCS) to the Maldivian government alleged “criminal elements” could be behind efforts to scupper the agreement.