Four members of staff at Sheraton’s Full Moon resort in Kaafu Atoll were taken into police custody yesterday, following the refusal of three dismissed employees to leave the premises.
While the Tourism Employees Association of Maldives (TEAM) has said the individuals were dismissed due to their participation in Labour Day celebrations earlier this month, representatives of the resort have said the dismissals were preceded by “a number of incidents”.
“There is no freedom of association or freedom of speech in the Maldives, especially not in the tourism industry,” said TEAM Secretary General Mauroof Zakir.
Police have informed Minivan News that the staff members were arrested for obstructing police duty following a call from resort management yesterday afternoon.
Shumaes Rasheed, Marketing Communicating Manager at Full Moon, provided further details:
“As the associates refused to leave the island, Maldives Police Service were notified to assist them in escorting them off the island.”
“Another four associates were arrested by the police for obstruction in carrying out their duties, and these associates have also been dismissed,” added Shumaes, noting that the welfare of the guests had not been affected by the incident.
Zakir told Minivan News that those initially dismissed were “key trade union leaders” on the resort, who had been preparing to enter collective bargaining with resort management.
Zakir said that the letter of termination issued to those dismissed referred to a gathering on May 1 during which the TEAM members decorated their association hut with banners calling for a minimum wage to US$600, improved freedom to speech, and other internationally recognised union rights.
“We cannot accept that, a wilful and peaceful gathering organised by the union is allowed in the ILO convention,” said Mauroof – noting that this was a convention to which the Maldives is a signatory.
The arrests followed a gathering by employees calling for their colleagues’ reinstatement, into which police “immediately intervened”, said Mauroof. He suggested police had been on the island for a number of days as part of a pre-planned operation.
Yesterday’s unrest was the latest in a number of incidents of staff unrest among the workers in the country’s largest industry which contributes an estimated 80 percent to the country’s GDP.
Figures from the Tourism Ministry have today revealed arrival figures to have increased by 11.2 percent this year compared with the same point in 2013 – a year which saw a record 1.3 million tourists arrive in the country.
Rising number of incidents
“It is unlikely anything will come out of parliament that will give protection to the workers,” noted Mauroof, suggesting that concerted industrial action by the country’s 26,000 tourism workers may be the only way to improve workers rights. 25 percent of the 17th Majlis are themselves resort owners, he added.
Despite the political turmoil of recent years, the country’s primary industry has remained sacrosanct, with the Majlis even passing legislation prohibiting such acts.
The tourism boycott bill passed the house in October last year, making it illegal to call for a boycott, to support or endorse of a boycott, to participate in a tourism boycott, or any act that would incite fear amongst tourists.
Mauroof suggested that the rising frequency of unrest on resorts in recent months could be attributed to a combination of a rising cost of living in the country and greater awareness of workers’ rights.
Increasing “overuse” of the Freedom of Assembly Act – much criticised since its introduction in 2012 – by authorities was also cited by the TEAM leader as cause for the dismissal of over 150 tourism employees.
“If the government has positive intentions to protect workers – things might change. Otherwise we will need some international leverage.”
Despite the general desire to separate the country’s primary source of income from its fractious politics, a number of resort workers have alleged in recent months that their dismissals were directly linked to the political leanings of their employers.
Both Gasim Ibrahim – owner of the Villa Group – and Ahmed Shiyam – owner of Sun Siyam Resorts – have been accused of purging staff rosters of staff members aligned with opposition political groups. Gasim and Siyam are the leaders of the ruling coalition Jumhooree Party and Maldives Development Alliance (MDA), respectively.
Earlier this week, a small but vocal protest could be heard circling the capital Malé, with a lone demonstrator pleading with the MDA leader:
“Sun Travel, I’m begging you on my knees, don’t threaten your employees. Don’t force people into your party. Don’t do this.”
“Let me tell you, you don’t have any rights,” the Dhaal Meedhoo MP was heard to say. “If you try to harm my business I will destroy you.”