The relatively small number of building site deaths recorded in the Maldives in recent years is more the result of “good fortune” rather than industry commitments to safety, the head of one of the country’s most prominent construction industry bodies has warned this week.
Mohamed Ali Janah, President of the Maldives Association of Construction Industry (MACI), told Minivan News that he believed a lack of national regulations outlining health and safety obligations at the nation’s building sites was a major point of concern needing to be addressed. He added that despite there being “not many deaths” attributed to the Maldives construction industry, laws still needed to be passed to ensure the safety of staff.
According to Janah, when assessing the standards of occupational health and safety on the country’s construction sites there were very few places in the world that “would accept the way work is conducted here in the Maldives”.
The comments were made after the Maldives Police Service police confirmed Tuesday (June 19) that a Bangladesh national working in the capital had died from injuries sustained during a fall from the sixth floor of a building site.
Police Spokesperson Sub-Inspector Hassan Haneef said that the construction company operating the site has said that “all safety measures” has been enforced at the time of the incident. However, after police interviewed the deceased’s co-workers, Haneef said it had been alleged that no such safety measures were adopted at the site.
When questioned by Minivan News about what actions the police may look to take in relation to the incident, the police spokesperson said he could not comment further on the case while investigations were ongoing.
While the Centre for Community Health and Diseases Control (CCHDC) is presently said to be working on drafting regulations that would impose safety standards on the industry, authorities have told Minivan News that there is presently no legal framework compelling construction workers to adopt occupational health measures.
According to MACI head Janah, this lack of regulation – as well as strong pressure for cost-cutting within the construction industry – were proving to be major setbacks in ensuring industry-wide improvements in health and safety.
“The issue of occupational health and safety has been a problem for years now. There are presently no laws encouraging construction companies to adopt safety standards in the workplace,” he said. “Clients are also not setting aside money to ensure health and safety measures are being met. People just don’t understand the importance of it in the workplace.”
Janah claimed that there were already a number of construction companies within the country acting in a responsible manner when it comes to ensuring employee safety. Yet despite the efforts of such companies to hold daily safety drills and other on-site programmes, he added that the industry’s work was being tarnished by other construction groups that were failing to meet their obligations.
“The majority of small and medium sized [construction] companies are not being paid or compensated to ensure employee safety, which makes it very difficult for them to adapt,” he added.
Janah said that MACI set out official guidelines late last year to try and ensure the organisation’s members were prioritising employee safety. However, he conceded that these guidelines were not a substitute for regulation, calling on the government to press ahead with passing legislation on mandatory safety obligations for construction workers.
Janah said he was “very sad” at the death of the construction worker who fell to his death this week in Male’ and pointed out that it was “not the first time” a construction employee had been injured or killed working on a building site in the capital.
“The employee was not believed to be wearing any safety gear when he died. This is shocking. Fortunately there have not been many deaths in construction here,” he said. “We will only see health and safety measures being adopted though when companies are willing to pay for it. However, if there is regulation, then there are also safety standards that companies will be forced to adhere to.”
When contacted today about the potential nature of safety regulations for the construction industry, the Ministry of Human Resources Youth and Sport forwarded Minivan News to the country’s Labour Relations Authority (LRA).
The LRA’s Assistant Director, Aishath Nafa Ahmed said it had already been looking to establish a regulation that would outline occupational health requirements at construction sites in future. According to Ahmed, the LRA was presently powerless to take action against an employer found to be operating unsafe sites under existing regulation.
“We can at present go to a site and inform employers about safety, but we do not have powers to act on possible concerns,” she said. “Last year, we ourselves started on a draft regulation as well within the ministry. But I do not know whether this got completed or not.”
Ahmed added that from her understanding, the country’s CCHDC had also been working to outline an act on worker safety that was designed to try and cut down on incidents such as the construction site death seen this week.
“They did send us an outline in April about [worker safety],” she said.
High commission concerns
Among those to have expressed concern this week at the work-site death of a foreign national and wider issues of occupational safety on the country’s construction sites, the High Commission of Bangladesh in Male’ said it had “raised concerns on a regular basis” over the safety of occupational health in the country for its nationals.
High Commissioner Rear Admiral Abu Saeed Mohamed Abdul Awal said that he had been in touch with representatives in the country over trying to “ensure” that sufficient safety measures were being afforded to workers in the country.
“We have been interacting with officials at various levels here about this issue. It is an ongoing process,” he added.
Last month, Commissioner Awal said he believed workers from Bangladesh were regularly being brought to the Maldives to perform unskilled work, usually in the construction industry, alleging that upon arriving, expatriates from Bangladesh were suffering from the practices of ”bad employers”.
“This is a real problem that is happening here, there have been many raids over the last year on unskilled [expatriate] workers who are suffering because of the companies employing them. They are not being given proper salaries and are paying the price for some of these employers,” he said.
Rear Admiral Awar added that it was the responsibility of employers to ensure expatriate staff had the proper documentation, suitable living standards and safe working environments.
Concerns about the treatment of expatriates from across the South Asia region were also shared by Indian High Commissioner Dynaneshwar Mulay. Speaking to Minivan News in April, Mulay raised concerns over the general treatment of Indian expatriates in the Maldives, particularly by the country’s police and judiciary.
Mulay claimed that alongside concerns about the treatment of some Indian expatriates in relation to the law, there were significant issues relating to “basic human rights” that needed to be addressed concerning expatriates from countries including Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
Beyond concerns about the basic human rights of foreign employees in the country, labour trafficking is also believed to represent a significant national economic issue.
An ongoing police investigation into labour trafficking in the Maldives last year 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 concerns first raised by former Bangladeshi High Commissioner Dr Selina Muhsin, reported by Minivan News in August 2010. The comments by Mushin were made shortly after the country was placed on the US State Department’s Tier 2 watchlist for human trafficking.