Exploitation of foreign workers rivals fishing as the second most profitable sector of the Maldivian economy after tourism, according to conservative estimates of the number of Bangladeshi workers showing up at their commission in Male’ after being abandoned at the airport by unscrupulous employment agents.
Former Bangladeshi High Commissioner to the Maldives, Professor Selina Mohsin, who finished her assignment in July, told Minivan News that every day 40 Bangladeshi nationals were turning up at reception, “having come to the Maldives and found they have nothing to do. So naturally they come here to the High Commission.”
Most of the stranded workers were recruited in rural areas of Bangladesh by local brokers, who would work alongside a Maldivian counterpart.
“The Bangladeshi counterpart charges the worker a minimum of US$2000, but it goes up to $US4000. This money is collected by the counterpart and divided: typically three quarters to Maldivian broker and one quarter to the Bangladeshi counterpart,” Professor Mohsin explained, prior to her departure.
“Many workers sell their land, their property, even their homesteads – putting their wives in a relative’s house – and come here for employment they have been told will fetch them between $US300-400 a month. But when they arrive, they find they have no employment.”
Stranded in a foreign country and unable to speak English or Dhivehi, the workers either melt into the Bangladeshi community and become illegal workers, working for low wages in substandard conditions, or present themselves at the High Commission and beg for help.
In some cases workers are collected from the airport by the brokers and have their passports confiscated before being dumped on the streets of Male’, Professor Mohsin explains. Typically the worker arrives with a local mobile phone number – inevitably disconnected – and does not know the name of the broker.
“They eventually end up at my office,” she says, pointing to the Commission’s reception area. “Often they are in a state of shock at arriving to discover they have no employment. I try to put them in a guest house for 7-10 days and see if they can be repatriated, but many can’t and because they owe sums of money they take any job they can – sometimes US$70-80 a month.”
Taking into account the Bangladeshi broker’s cut, and based purely on the numbers of stranded expatriates presenting themselves at the high commission, indicates an employment trafficking scam worth upwards of $43.8 million year.
Even at conservative figures based on the numbers of Bangladeshi nationals presenting at the commission, this rivals the country’s US$46 million fishing industry (2007, Department of National Planning) as the country’s second largest export earner after tourism.
That could likely be just the tip of the iceberg – Professor Mohsin believes the true figure is far higher, pinpointing one operation as bringing in upwards of $100 million.
Work permit discrepancies
Under Maldivian law foreign workers arriving in the Maldives must have a work permit issued by the Immigration Department. This is obtained through an employer or agent, who must first request a foreign worker quota from the Ministry of Trade and Human Resources.
These are obtained “very easily”, Professor Muhsin contends.
“The Maldivian [side] gets into connection with the Bangladeshi brokers, gets a business permit from the Ministry of Human Resources, says they want to recruit and gets a quota for more workers than they require – if they require any at all – and then ask a Bangladeshi counterpart to bring in the workers.”
In an effort to control the flow of workers into the country, some High Commissions – such as Bangladesh – also require that work permits for their nationals be attested by the local commission before they are considered valid.
First Secretary at the Indian High Commission, Naryan Swamy, told Minivan News that the Indian High Commission ceased attesting work permits 3-4 years ago, although the policy remained in place in certain Gulf countries to reduce the exploitation of female domestic servants.
“Our major problem is not forged documents, but people who are given a rosy picture in India about working in the Maldives and want to go abroad. They might be earning US$200 in India, but are told they can earn US$400. When they arrive they get US$120-140,” Swamy says, adding that the burgeoning domestic economy in India has markedly reduced the number of workers falling into such a trap.
“On average we receive 2-3 people a day with this problem. Most of the time we can talk to the employers – usually workers are unsatisfied with the conditions.”
Where the Indian High Commission can identify the employment brokers, “we don’t give up easily,” he hinted. “If we have a case we don’t just write letters – we follow up. The system sometimes takes a long time, but we don’t give up.”
Professor Mohsin acknowlegdes that India “has a far better system than ours, and we allow far more innocent people to come through. But even in India’s case, professionals like doctors on many of the islands are treated badly and looked down on.”
However with the system of attestation in place, the importing of Bangladeshi workers now depends on forged documentation, she contends.
“I haven’t attested a single work permit since April. How are they entering? Why are they still coming at all?” she asks.
“Recently I caught one Maldivian man who was bringing in over 1800 people. I asked him, ‘what will you do with them?’ He said there were ‘many projects’. I asked him to show me the projects and he couldn’t.
“I asked him if he had cleared this with the Ministry of Human Resources, Youth and Sports. I rang to check and it had – it was attested by one of the ministries of this government.
“I signed but had questions in my mind – why were the terms and conditions so small? There should be pages and pages – for 1800 people there should be hundreds of pages, and details of the project.
“But I had doubts in my mind so declared my signature null and void within Bangladesh within 4-5 days. I checked the company – it took me months – and then I found out the whole thing was a scam totalling over US$300 million.
“Those people would have come [to Male’] had I not checked. Had I not done it, 1800 people would have sold their homes and become delinquent in the Maldives. This did not bother a Maldivian broker – hell is not good enough for the people who are doing this.”
Maldives placed on human trafficking watch-list
Most cases that arrive at the High Commission involve trafficked workers. The problem is large enough to have attracted the attention of the US State Department, which placed the Maldives on its watch-list for human trafficking following what it described as the government’s “failure to investigate or prosecute trafficking-related offenses or take concrete actions to protect trafficking victims and prevent trafficking in the Maldives.”
In its 2010 Human Trafficking report – published less than a month after the Maldives was given a seat on the UN Human Rights Council – the State Department estimated that half the Bangladeshis in the Maldives had arrived illegally “and most of these workers are probably victims of trafficking”.
It highlighted the construction and service sectors as primary offenders, and noted the prevalence of “fraudulent recruitment practices, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or non-payment of wages, and debt bondage.”
Most trafficking in the country involves exploitation of foreign labour, according to Professor Mohsin, “but in extreme cases it has been for prostitution.”
After repatriating a Bangladeshi girl who had been forced into prostitution in the Maldives, Professor Mohsin ceased attesting work permits for Bangladeshi women altogether.
“I said I would allow no more women. I will not allow any more Bangladeshi women to come to the Maldives because they are used for the wrong purposes. I have even met young boys who work in houses and are physically assaulted. I have spoken to people to whom this has happened: I told one guy, just give me a complaint and I will catch the person. But he was too scared [of retaliation].”
Professor Muhsin acknowledged that government’s response to her outcry might be “Why is the Bangladeshi High Commissioner creating such a racket?”
“But tell me – if every day you are inundated with dozens and dozens of workers who are in a state of shock – then it becomes a very big issue for me. I have to know why they aren’t rigorous enough at the airport.”
With a single international airport funnelling foreign workers into the country, the Maldivian authorities should be able to fix the problem any time they want, Professor Mohsin contends.
“[Bangladesh] has many airports and a very porous border: we share thousands of miles with India. Some people even have houses half in Bangladesh and half in India, such was the border drawn by Sir Radcliffe. That’s why it is very easy to cross to South India and fly to the Maldives.
“But in Maldives there is only one international airport, and people have to come out of it. Tell me – if you don’t want me in your house, how can I enter? How can I enter if the door is locked?
“What I want to say is: stop them at the airport. If your database is correct, if you are rigorous, if you have scanned their passport as you say, then you at least have a copy of the passport. If you are the employer [to whom the quota is allocated] you know the broker. Nobody is taking this seriously enough.”
State Minister for Foreign Affairs Ahmed Naseem said he was “very concerned” at the “strong wording” in the US State Department’s report, noting that human trafficking was “a very harsh term” to describe people brought to the Maldives by unscrupulous employers and agents.
“Anyone can get a [tourist] visa on arrival, and we don’t discriminate just because somebody is Bangladeshi,” he said.
He observed that all employment agents were registered with the Ministry of Human Resources: “I think they have a lot of knowledge about the problem and know exactly what is going on,” he said.
“We are researching the issues mentioned in the [State Department’s] 2010 report. There are a lot of illegals here and not enough jobs – we’re looking into the mater.”
Hussein Ismail, Deputy Minister for Human Resources, claimed it was “impossible” to enter the Maldives with forged documents, “because whatever employment approval we issue is electronically copied to immigration and checked against a person’s name. The database is shared, so they know when an employment visa has not been issued.”
When a work permit is approved it must be used within 50 days, “so there will be [arrivals] pending,” he noted, even if a High Commission were to cease attesting work permits.
Rights and treatment
The rights and treatment of Bangladeshi workers – including those employed legally – remains an issue for the Maldives.
“I once had somebody call me to say he was surrounded by 500 Bangladeshis because their salaries had not been paid for one year,” recalls Professor Mohsin. “I called the employer – I was very annoyed. He said to me: ‘I will not pay their salaries. What are you going to do about it?”
When workers fell into such a situation, she explains, they had little legal recourse or judicial instruments, and any civil case was conducted in Dhivehi to the bewilderment of the worker – even if they could find a lawyer.
“It is incumbent on the government of the Maldives to provide legal services to those who have been deprived of their rights to their salary – it should not be my business,” Professor Mohsin says.
Even the Immigration Department does not employ a Bangla speaker, despite the scope of the problem and their contribution to the economy, relying instead on the Bangladeshi High Commission to provide interpreters. An immigration official confided to Minivan News that while they were aware of problems with brokers, the language barrier made it difficult to determine what was going on when the worker arrived. Instead, he said, the Department relied on glimmers obtained from workers who approached authorities after they had acquired some Dhivehi, often when departing the country.
Professor Mohsin said she was at a loss to describe the abysmal treatment of Bangladeshi workers in the Maldives, given the centuries of close cultural association between the two countries.
“Historically things like tobacco smoking and rice eating were all learned from Bengal, because the Maldives had nothing but cowry shells,” Professor Mohsin says. “That was the Maldives’ only export – what would traders bring back in return? Rice, textiles, tobacco, wood… one of the country’s rulers was even a Bengali princess.
“I find it very painful now that a Maldivian coming from such a tiny country, and dependent on others for food, can look down on Bangladeshi workers who are doing all the menial work that no Maldivian will do. Why have they changed suddenly? What is this ethos that allows the country to employ workers from other countries and treat them so badly?”