Forced labour and discrimination rife in the Maldives, claims report

Forced labour is a “serious problem” in the Maldives and a sign that the government is not fulfilling its obligations as a member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), claims a report into the country’s labour and trade union policies by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

The report, produced for the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in October, found a “relatively large number of forced labour-type situations among migrant workers and female domestic workers in the Maldives.”

“Domestic workers, especially migrant female domestic workers, are sometimes trapped in situations of forced labour and are in many cases forbidden from leaving the employers’ home through threats and other means,” the report said, citing figures from the 2009 report of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives.

“It is estimated that the number of migrant workers has almost tripled during the past five years and there are more than 80,000 migrant workers in the country, equivalent to
around 26 per cent of the population. While many are not in a situation to be defined as bonded labour or forced labour, many other labourers from neighbouring countries pay
large sums as commissions to receive employment in the Maldives and often are not in a position to quit their job before they have paid back the sums of money borrowed.”

“I think there’s some truth in it, particularly with female workers from Sri Lanka and India finding themselves in situations where they are not being paid, or not able to limit their working hours,” said President of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) Ahmed Saleem.

Children were particularly at risk, the report noted, with some of those migrating to Male from the outer islands for educational purposes finding themselves forced to work as informal domestic workers in exchange for accommodation and food.

“The house work done by such children is not voluntary in the cases where their continued stay in such houses depends on such children obediently doing house work as required by the owners of houses,” the report found, adding that child labour was also reported in the fishing industry.

Saleem said he had not heard of such practices in the fishing industry, but noted that when people living on the islands sent children to study in Male “many places will provide food and pay expenses, and in return the [child] may feel obliged to do work.”

There were many advertisements for such arrangements in local newspapers, he observed.

Workplace discrimination

The report also lambasted the government for failing to implement the prohibitions in the Constitution and Employment Act against workplace discrimination, especially regarding women.

“Women face discrimination at the workplace and in society, a problem which the government has failed to address in any satisfactory way,” the report said.

“At certain workplaces it is not permitted to get married or pregnant as this would lead to a termination of employment or change of job, and the complete absence of child care facilities forces many women to leave their job once their first child is born.”

Aishath Velezinee, member of the Judicial Services Commission, questioned whether this occurred and noted that the Maldives’ lack of childcare facilities stemmed from the culture historically relying on extended families for this purpose.

“Until lifestyles and ways of living began to change, there hasn’t been a need for it,” she said.

As for sexual harassment, another area highlighted in the report, “it exists but there is also a bill being drafted. I would say the state is addressing the issue.”

Discrimination based on sex was similar to that based on perceived cultural and profession hierarchies, she said.

“People don’t seem to understand the concept; they see [discrimination] as a cultural thing. It is a big issue: we don’t seem to understand the discrimination as it is meant in the Constitution or as it is expected in a democratic country.”

Even in the Supreme Court, she said, junior staff were made to take off their shoes and either wear slippers or go barefoot to protect the soft marble floors while senior staff could wear shoes.

The report also noted that women were prevented from working at many resorts because of their remote locations, as it was not considered socially acceptable for young unmarried females to stay on resorts for long durations.

“Traditionally women are disadvantaged in the Maldives, particularly in the application of Shari’a law in matters such as divorce, education, inheritance, and testimony in legal proceedings,” the report said, a state of affairs Velezinee admitted was “true”.

Saleem however observed that the Maldives treated women far better than other Islamic cultures, “where many [women] would describe themselves as slaves and sex objects.”

“Maldivian women have had voting rights since time immemorial. I’m not saying anything is perfect, but I think we have done more than other Islamic countries,” he said.

Collective bargaining

Furthermore, the report claimed that the Constitution and Employment Act contained no provisions allowing workers to collectively bargain, and despite the presence of active workers’ organisations such as the Tourism Employees’ Association of Maldives (TEAM) and the Teachers’ Association of the Maldives (TAM) the country had yet to formally recognise any trade unions.

“Strikes have been suppressed and encountered violent reactions from the the police [in the past],” the report said, observing that “freedom of association is still far from common practice.”

The right to collective bargaining “should be integrated [into the Constitution and Employment Act] now the Maldives is a member of the ILO,” the report urged.

“It must be the primary priority of the Maldives to ratify and fully implement the eight core ILO conventions and bring its labour law and practice in line with international labour standards.”

Saleem agreed: “Everyone knows the Employment Act needs changes. The Labour Ministry has said it will look at the recommendations we made [on the subject], but it has been two months. It’s time the government made it a priority – the Labour Minister has a lot of work to do.”