“Hell will come” to parliament over provinces section: MP Mohamed Nasheed

Parliament’s decentralisation committee has removed the concept of ‘provinces’ from the contentious Decentralisation Bill, claiming that dividing the country into seven provinces and not keeping it divided into its current  21 administrative regions is unconstitutional.

During the decentralisation bill’s third innings at Parliament, the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP)-led committee in charge of reviewing the bill voted in favour of removing the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) proposal of provincial division.

In protest against the removal of the ‘provinces’ from the bill, four MDP MPs walked out of the committee meeting last week leaving the remaining seven members to take a vote on whether the provincial divisions should remain or be removed.

According to Independent MP Mohamed Nasheed, this “sticking issue” has been causing disagreements in Parliament and within the committee since the Bill was first introduced. The reasons behind the argument were “partly legal, partly political,” he explained.

According to the Constitution, the country should be divided into 21 administrative districts. Nasheed points out that the Constitution does not mention provinces; nor does it say whether the country can or cannot be divided into provinces.

Nasheed said the DRP is against the move because they claim it is unconstitutional, while the MDP counters that because provincial governance is in the party’s manifesto and people voted for MDP, it should be allowed.

Nasheed said the government began constructing new province offices and appointing ministers while the bill was still being disputed, and has spent Rf125 million (US$9.6 million) on administrative costs already.

“The government did not consult with the main opposition [before going ahead],” he said.

In an effort to avoid the protests and disruption that occurred during the last vote in parliament over the bill, Nasheed suggested a compromise whereby the president has the right to group regions together for administrative reasons, similar to the way it is done in the health and education sectors.

“It does not need to be crystallised in law,” he explained.

He noted that creating provincial councils would only complicate things as it would mean four layers of government in the country: island council, atoll council, province council and national government.

However Nasheed said he believes that “no one will give up” on the issue, as “the government has climbed the ladder so high, it would be a major political defeat if they back down. Right now, it’s MDP against everyone else,” he said.

Nasheed said he expects “a lot of friction” in Parliament this coming week, suggesting that “hell will come” when the issue is sent back to the Majlis.

MDP response

MDP MP for Henveiru South Hamid Abdul Gafoor said the bill “should have been enacted into law on 1 July 2009… it has to be done within the transitional two years [since the change of government]. There are only three months left.”

Gafoor said because the population of individual atolls are so small, sometimes under 10,000 people, it is not enough people to make administrative costs economically viable.

“We need [about] 40,000 people [in each region] to make it economically feasible,” he said, noting that this would mean cutting civil servants “as the extra layer simplifies the system.”

Gafoor said there would still be atoll councillors, but there wouldn’t be a need for representatives of the central government in each atoll, therefore reducing costs.

“We will cut down on red tape, on bureaucracy,” he said.

Gafoor added that if this section of the bill is passed, the subsequent elections for provincial ministers and representatives would be “a landmark election” for the country.

DRP response

Chairperson of the Decentralisation Committee and DRP MP Mohamed Mujthaz said there will only be another vote if an MP proposes amendments. Otherwise, he said, “tomorrow, the committee will finish [reviewing the bill].”

DRP MP Ahmed Nihan said the DRP has been “refusing to add” this concept of provincial division from the beginning.

He said DRP has never been against decentralisation, as it clearly stated in the Constitution the country should be run by a decentralised government. But he added “it is unconstitutional” to make the division into seven provinces and not the stipulated 21 regions.

Nihan said this new division would only complicate things more, adding “the public is now confused” as to where to go: the island office, atoll office, or province office: “The service is getting far away from the people.”

Nihan said MDP can ask for an amendment in Parliament, but said he thought “the public is not in the mood to let this happen.”

Government response

Press Secretary for the President, Mohamed Zuhair, said “the president’s view has been publicly stated. Just having atoll councillors does not prove good economics; it is too small a population.”

Zuhair said although the Constitution stipulates the country be divided into twenty-one atolls, “it does not prohibit” dividing it by provinces.

He said grouping the atolls into provinces was “necessary” and noted that “aid agencies have [also] grouped them. This is not a new idea.”

Zuhair said MDP MPs are boycotting the committee and said “there will still be intervention,” assuring “there will be a vote” in Parliament to resolve this.

He added that the president could, “by decree” include the provinces into the bill, “but it’s not the ideal situation. The president is still trying to garner support.”


Civil Court fines supermarket Rf1 for overcharging customer

The Civil Court has ordered the Mahchangolhi branch of prominent Male’ supermarket Agora to pay Rf1 (US7 cents), after a distgruntled customer filed a lawsuit against the economic ministry and Agora’s owners, the Bright Brothers company.

Hassan Suwad of Sulha in Henveiru sued the shop for selling him a bottle of ‘Biore’ facial foam for Rf1 more than the purchase price mentioned on the product.

Civil Court Judge Hathif Hilmy ruled that Agora pay Rf1 to the Civil Court within five days, so it could be returned to the customer.

Furthermore, Judge Hathif said that according to the witnesses it was proved that Agora had tried to return the Rf1 to Suwad when he purchased the product.

Judge Hathif said that without presenting the economic ministry in court, the Civil Court cannot order on them in their absence.

Agora and Bright Brothers did not respond to Minivan News at time of press.


HRCM condemns recent violence and political confrontations

The Human Rights Commission Maldives (HRCM) has condemned the recent riots and political confrontations, reports Miadhu.

In a press statement released today, the HRCM has said the recent conflicts erupting during political activities and confrontations between people of different opinions are causing great physical and mental harm to the people.

The HRCM has requested the people avoid violence and cooperate with police. They have also asked the police to continue their work in preventing and dispersing violent demonstrations, and to respect the laws and Constitution of the Maldives.

They stated that although the Constitution provides “right to freedom of peaceful assembly without prior permission of the State” as stipulated in Article 32, this is limited by the “regulation on freedom of assembly” which was drafted before the new Constitution came into force.

The HRCM also expressed concern over the violent acts that took place in Parliament on 23 March, and requested the Parliament resolve issues by discussion and not to disrupt the work which needs to be done in the Majlis.


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.”