Politics in paradise: Irufushi resort staff complain of political “firing spree”

Additional reporting by Neil Merrett

Staff at Irufushi Beach and Spa resort have expressed concern over a “firing spree” affecting staff members professing to support the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

The resort, which in May 2013 abruptly terminated its agreement with hotel giant Hilton leading to the overnight resignation of 30 employees, is owned by Maldivian Development Alliance (MDA) leader Ahmed ‘Sun’ Shiyam. MDA is the coalition partner of the Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM), and is backing its candidate Abdulla Yameen in the presidential run-off.

According to staff at the resort, the management has been on a “firing spree” since the conclusion of the first round of elections, while some others have been suspended or warned of dismissal.

Minivan News obtained copies of three letters of termination, one dated September 19 and two dated September 26, instructing staff that their employment was “terminated with immediate effect”, and ordering them to collect their belongings and leave the island the same day. The letters did not give reason for the terminations.

Mohamed Rishwan, one of the first staff members who was fired from Irufushi, spoke to Minivan News about the “unfair circumstances surrounding [his] unexpected dismissal”.

Rishwan, who worked in the resort’s housekeeping department, was dismissed on September 26 and alleged the only response from the Human Resource Department to his request for a reason was “I don’t know. These were orders from the top management. Why do you need to support [MDP presidential candidate] Mohamed Nasheed?”.

“Our work and politics have been absolutely entangled by the current management. Staff at the resort are living in a constant state of fear of losing their jobs, despite performing at their best. The rumour is the HR Department plans to dismiss many others there who support MDP. Pressure increased after Nasheed won the majority of votes even on Irufushi in the first round,” Rishwan said.

According to results from Irufushi’s ballot box in the first round of voting on September 7,  59 staff on the resort voted for the MDP, 38 for the PPM, six for the JP and one for incumbent President Mohamed Waheed.

“When I demanded to meet the HR head after I was suddenly and unexpectedly dismissed, Shiyam’s brother met with us. He said there was no reason except that the resort no longer wanted us there. He then spent the rest of the meeting asking us why we supported Nasheed, promoting Yameen and his policies and trying to dissuade us from supporting MDP,” Rishwan continued.

“I told him I no longer wanted to live in fear, under such extreme political pressure, being discriminated against for political reasons. We were even harassed in the staff quarters by supporters of the opposite political ideology. The staff of Irufushi have been stripped of many constitutional rights and live under the repression of this new politicised management.

The Tourism Employees Association of the Maldives (TEAM) on Thursday committed its 5000 members to “prolonged” strike action should the election be delayed.

“The management have ordered all staff to register at the resort for voting. They’ve also said at staff briefings that all staff must vote for Yameen, and that no one should dare try implementing the workers’ strike that Nasheed spoke of,” Rishwan alleged.

“One colleague refused to register to vote at the resort, saying he will finish his duty and go to his nearby home island to vote citing that it was his constitutional right to do so. He was immediately fired. Some of my former colleagues are now saying that they will not dare cast a vote at all,” he said.

Another source, currently working at Irufushi, spoke on condition of anonymity of what he described as a repressive atmosphere among resort staff.

“Things are very difficult. I need to hold this job, so don’t name me. Shiyam is firing anyone he even suspects of supporting the MDP. Most of us are under what I would say is psychological trauma right now, afraid to speak our minds as there is so much pressure from above. We can’t all afford to lose our jobs, but is political affiliation any reason to be legally dismissed from a job?”

“MDA is forcing staff to sign up for their party, that’s the only path to job guarantee or promotion these days. They are also hiring groups of youth who live on this island but do nothing besides preparing campaign banners for the MDA coalition. I’ve been working here for many years, but I feel like a stranger here now with so many new, hostile faces. The sudden lack of usual liberties is very disheartening,” he said.

“There’s been at least five dismissals in the last week, and no one knows who is next. You see, this is our livelihood, how we support families. This is why everyone is bowing down to this repression, even if reluctantly, and attempting to hold our jobs.”

“Sun Shiyam has addressed all staff in extremely disrespectful, and even vulgar, terms. Let me quote what he said at a staff briefing: ‘You MDP lot are making ‘haram’ use of my money as your wages. You are not entitled to any of it. I will make sure I push out every single one of you MDP dogs from my resort. Mark my words.’ You see, this is the reason the staff are in fear. We need to let word out and let the world know,” another staff member told Minivan News.

“The management holds nightly staff gatherings where they slander Nasheed and praise Yameen. Staff are made to agree with all they say, or face dismissal within two days. They have said that they want 100 percent votes for Yameen from Irufushi in the second round, and that it is mandatory for all staff members to register to vote on Irufushi itself.”

“In fact, we’ve been told that if Yameen doesn’t win 100 percent, they will see what percentage Nasheed gets, and fire an equal percentage of staff based on who they suspect might have cast those votes. Most of us are now saying we will just cast invalid votes, or just not vote at all,” he said.

“Shiyam took over this resort in what the staff refers to as another coup d’etat at the resort level. Since then we have been gradually stripped of rights we are legally entitled to as citizens of the Maldives.”

Resort response

General Manager of Irufushi Beach and Spa Resort, Abdulla Thamheed, rejected allegations that the resort had fired staff members for politically-motivated reasons.

He said that after Sun Travel and Tours took over the site following the company’s decision to terminate its agreement with Hilton in May, a number of staff members had been fired for “not sharing the resort’s values”.

“These people were not on the same page with the company, so we have gone our separate ways,” he said.

Thamheed said the resort had not been affected by calls for strike action by tourism workers over the indefinite suspension of the run-off election.

He also questioned the motivation of any Maldivian seeking to damage the country’s luxury tourism industry, stating that most staff members had families they needed to support.

“No one is interested in striking [on the resort],” he said.

Before answering questions on the allegations of politically-motivated sackings at the resort, Thamheed requested he be quoted on the record as expressing concerns over “why a white European” was allowed to working at a Maldives-based publication such as Minivan News.

“The fact you are a white European doesn’t mean you can come to a third world country and break into our privacy,” he told Minivan News. “You are a white European and a failure in the UK. I have managed many five star resorts and met journalists from newspapers like the Sunday Times and the Daily Telegraph,” he said.

Upon confirming the reporter’s nationality as a UK citizen, Thamheed expressed his view that the journalist was a stereotypical reminder of the Maldives’ colonial past.  Asked to clarify his comment, he accepted that the Maldives itself had not been colonised by the UK.

“You see yourself as an imperialistic and colonial person, who believes they have imperial superiority over us. No one will give you a job outside this country,” Thamheed said.

He added that although his comments were “not personal”, but questioned Minivan News’ ethics as a news organisation and said the reporter could not be called a journalist for producing what he believed was “biased, one-sided propaganda”.

Thamheed went on to state that as a white European in the Maldives, the Minivan News reporter would not have sought to contact someone for a story in their own country during evening time.

“I have met many top journalists from newspapers like the Sunday Times and the Telegraph. Do you really think this is how journalists are supposed to behave?” he said.

Thamheed requested that his words be remembered by the journalist and quoted directly in this article.

“I don’t think you will be able to sleep tonight,” he said. “I am very happy I have spoken to you.”

MDA leader, MP and Irufushi owner Ahmed ‘Sun’ Shiyam was not responding to calls at time of press.