An ongoing police investigation into labour trafficking in the Maldives has uncovered an industry worth an estimated US$123 million, eclipsing fishing (US$46 million in 2007) as the second greatest contributor of foreign currency to the Maldivian economy after tourism.
The authorities’ findings echo those first raised by former Bangladeshi High Commissioner Dr Selina Mohsin, reported by Minivan News in August last year, and which saw the country placed on the US State Department’s Tier 2 watchlist for human trafficking.
However prior to the current investigation, ordered by President Mohamed Nasheed and which involved the military taking over immigration and human resources duties for a two week period, few facts were known about the Maldivian side of the operation.
“People have been creating fraudulent companies and using them to apply for fraudulent work permit quotas, and then diverting these quotas to keep bringing in illegal workers,” said President Nasheed’s Spokesperson, Mohamed Zuhair.
“A would-be worker [overseas] pays money and ends up here on fraudulent papers obtained by a bogus agent, from quotas at a non-existent company,” Zuhair said. “Sometimes they are expected to work for 3-4 years to make the payment – workers have told police that this is often as much as US$2000.”
Authorities currently estimated the industry to be worth US$123 million a year, he said.
Police Sub-Inspector Ahmed Shiyam told Minivan News that many illegal workers identified by police through the investigation – the majority from Bangladesh – had sold their land, their property and moved their families to pay the fees demanded by the bogus recruiters.
When they arrive they find the job a totally different prospect from what they were led to expect, he said.
“Sometimes there is no job and they are released straight onto the street. We found some people who had paid before coming – they arrived at the airport and nobody came to pick them up,” said Shiyam. ”The case is very serious – this is not the way things should be, and it has been going on for a long time.”
Zuhair said that in some cases workers brought to the Maldives were themselves recruited to help enlist others from their country – in addition to seven Maldivians, 12 expatriates have been arrested during the case so far.
Paper companies and ministerial corruption
The expansive investigation has seen 18 ‘paper companies’ raided by the police commercial crime unit, headed by Inspector Mohamed Riyaz, who revealed to the media last week that police had seized 4000 passports confiscated from trafficked workers.
Two of the seven bogus companies identified as trafficking workers, Ozone Investments Pvt Ltd and Arisco Maldives Pvt Ltd, had brought in 3000 workers between them.
Using the fake companies, the traffickers fraudulently obtained work permit quotas for non-existent projects from the Human Resources Ministry by stealing the identities of unwitting Maldivians, or even the deceased. Police had received many complaints about such forgeries from the confused third party, Riyaz told the media.
Moreover, many of the quotas requested from the Human Resources Ministry had been approved despite obvious warning signs such as the importing of construction workers for specialised IT projects, Riyaz said.
Zuhair told Minivan News that while he was unable to “point fingers” as the investigation was ongoing, the current findings implicated senior officials in both the Immigration Department and the Ministry of Human Resources.
In addition, the persistent use of fraudulent companies implied further scrutiny of the Ministry of Trade was required, Zuhair said.
Trade Minister Mahmoud Razee confirmed to Minivan News that the Ministry was providing information to police as requested. Establishing a company in the Maldives carried few requirements under existing laws, he explained, “and even before this we have been proposing amendments to company law to require additional clearances for directors, based on their records.”
Even for those individuals found guilty of the crime labour trafficking presently represents a violation of the Employment Act, and only carries a small fine.
Zuhair said punishment was a matter for the judiciary “and I’m confident justice will be done”. However he acknowledged that the greatest impact would come from exposing those involved: “The people involved will be named and shamed,” he pledged, which would limit their capacity for further fraud or criminal enterprise and hopefully ward off further victims.
The investigation was ordered by the President, he noted, as the Immigration Department and the Human Resources Ministry “were each accusing the other for the problem. The government has stepped in as a neutral party to conduct a holistic investigation, without incrimination.”
He said the government would need to “seek assistance” to deport the large numbers of illegal workers the investigation was likely to uncover.
“The origin countries also have a responsibility to repatriate their nationals,” he said.
Minivan News asked Zuhair why the government had only acted after several years of accusations that labor trafficking was prolific in the country – the US State Department recently renewed the Maldives’ position on the trafficking watch list for the second year running.
“The accusations have been apparent for the last few years, but the extent to which the situation has developed, and the lines between system error, human error and intentional fraud have been unclear. It has now become clearer,” he said.