The Department of Immigration and Emigration has said that it is strengthening action taken against those who employ or provide housing for undocumented migrant workers.
Deputy CEO of Immigration Abdulla Munaz said the department is strengthening the implementation of existing regulations because the provision of employment and shelter is a major cause is rising numbers of undocumented workers in the country.
“We will take whatever action is necessary. The actions [to be taken] are very clear in the existing laws. The immigration act allows to fine anyone that employs or provide accommodation for immigrants residing in the Maldives unlawfully,” said Munaz.
According to the department, employers will be fined between MVR15,000 and MRV50,000 if found to be unlawfully employing or housing an immigrant, while the removal of the right to employ foreign workers can result from employing even a single undocumented worker.
Rather than blacklisting companies, the department now targets employers engaged in the unlawful employment of foreign workers, preventing them from employing any migrant worker under their name.
In addition to the approximately 110,000 migrant workers employed in the Maldives, the number of undocumented workers have been estimated to be as high as 44,000. Many workers live at congested labor quarters owned by locals.
While some of these workers are engaged in manual labor, others are employed officially by companies and by individuals working for various industries such agriculture, construction, and fisheries – an industry in which foreign workers are not allowed.
As per immigration laws and regulations, foreign employees can only do the type of work for which the visa is issued and only for the employers with whom they are registered.
Voluntary repatriation program
Munaz said that the intention of stricter regulation is not take action against as many people, but to resolve the issue.
He described the voluntary repatriation programme announced last December as an opportunity for employers to get things right, as the department understands how widespread the employment of such workers are in the country.
The programme – offering leniency for undocumented migrant workers who wish to return to their home countries voluntarily on their own expenses – received huge support, according to the department.
By last week, approximately 4,400 workers out of 5,134 that registered for the programme had left the Maldives. Under the scheme, they will be allowed to return within six months of departure. According to immigration, on average 50 of these workers are now leaving Maldives daily.
“The reason we started that programme is because we noticed that a lot of foreign workers who are staying in Maldives unlawfully are forced to do so. They are not doing it intentionally, but circumstances they faced lead them to be in that situation,” explained Munaz.
“If we are to investigate each and every case to see if it was intentional or not, it would take a lot of time to achieve the primary objective of reducing the number of undocumented workers,” he continued.
Some workers are recruited unlawfully at the airport before they even meet the actual employer by promising higher wages and providing false information, said Munaz.
“These people don’t have documents and they actually want to leave. But they can’t. They don’t have their documents. So we helped them through their consulates to create a one way travel document so they could leave. We received a good cooperation from all embassies.”
Munaz said cases identified as human trafficking are forwarded to the police, and cases where there are labour right violations such as non-payment of wages are forwarded to the labour relations authority for further investigation.
“Sometimes employers let their foreign employees go, stop paying them wages, and ask them to go out and seek work on their own. In such cases the employees will not have any place to go, they may not have much savings.”
“Recently there was a case where a group of migrant workers were taken from Malé to another island to work, and after completing the work the employers went to another island and just left them there,” said Munaz.
Workers in such situations who voluntarily approach the department are provided with accommodation at the ‘Bidheysee Hiyaa’ safe house until their travel arrangements are made from the employer’s deposit at the department.
Those who are caught by the department are held at the Immigration Removal Center at Hulhumalé Prison until they are deported.
The People’s Majlis passed the country’s first anti-trafficking legislation last December following international criticism of the Maldives’ moves to prevent the practice.