Expatriate workers becoming “very desperate” in wake of blackmarket dollar crackdown

Low-wage expatriate workers in the Maldives are becoming increasingly desperate in the wake of a government crackdown on the blackmarket exchange of rufiya into US dollars.

Many of the country’s 100,000 foreign workers, particularly a large percentage of labourers from Bangladesh, are paid in Maldivian rufiya by their employers and are forced to change the money on the blackmarket at rates often several rufiya higher than the government’s pegged rate of Rf12.85, before sending the money to their families.

Banks have been reluctant to sell dollars at the pegged rate in more than token quotas for much of the last year, a symptom of the ongoing dollar shortage – even those with dollar accounts have reported difficultly withdrawing cash at the counters without appropriate connections within financial institution.

Several expatriate workers Minivan News spoke to expressed frustration that banks were refusing to exchange rufiya to dollars, only to hand over money to local residents next in the queue.

A well-known figure in the Bangadeshi community, Saiful Islam, who has been in the country for 28 years, told Minivan News that many people were becoming “very desperate.”

“They are struggling to get money remitted to relatives and parents at the other end. This is a very desperate situation for them,” he said.

“There are some people who work in resorts and who are paid in US dollars who travel to Male’ and sell them at a much higher price than the government’s [pegged rate] of Rf12.85, sometimes as high as Rf14 or Rf15. There are people who are so desperate they will buy dollars at any price because they have no other choice,” Islam said.

“Without taking this demand into consideration, I don’t think a crackdown will work. I don’t think it is unfair to abide by the rules when you are in another country, however that changes when people become desperate – look at people in Libya, do you think they will apply by the government’s rules and regulations?”

“There needs to be an outlet where they money can be changed to US dollars, even 50 percent of it. Otherwise, why are they here? They have a big family at the other end who depend on their income.”

Unable to change money legitimately and under pressure to provide for families at home, and unable to leave due to the expense of air travel, debts owed to unscrupulous recruiters or common practices such as employers holding workers’ passports until the conclusion of their contract, many workers are functionally left without options other than to risk arrest.

Bangladesh’s High Commissioner to the Maldives, Rear Admiral Abu Saeed Mohamed Abdul Awal, acknowledged the problem was one that ”all expatriates face, because all their revenue is earned in local currency, but when they go to pay remittances it must be paid in dollars.”

The crackdown, Awal said, was the government’s prerogative, “however our concern is the payment of expats in local currency. There needs to be a proper government arrangement for repatriating salary.”

“This has become a pressing problem and a serious concern, however the availability of dollars is a longstanding issue. The issue of dollar scarcity is an internal matter for the Maldives.”

The President’s Press Secretary Mohamed Zuhair told Minivan News that there was an “expatriate element” to the dollar shortage faced by the Maldives due to the high numbers of “illegally-employed workers buying dollars on the blackmarket and transferring them overseas.”

Zuhair claimed that every expatriate arriving in the Maldives came in on a contract “stating what currency he would be paid in. The onus is on the employer to pay in US dollars.”

“If [the worker] accepted a contract paid in rufiyaa, then if he wants to send dollars back to his country he will have to change it at the bank when and if that is possible, or on the blackmarket [and risk arrest]. Banks have a quota at which they sell dollars based on need and supply.”

Zuhair said the police crackdown targeting the illegal sale of dollars by both licensed and unlicensed vendors had made “considerable progress, with two arrests.”

“The government hopes [the crackdown] will stabilise the dollar market, black or otherwise, and create a scenario whereby the dollar dips so anyone hoarding dollars will release their reserves,” he said. “We have the numbers and the numbers are clear: we have enough dollars in the country.”

Meanwhile, Zuhair said, the government was seeking to replace the Governor of the Maldives Monetary Authority, Fazeel Najeeb, “who has not effected any changes to rectify this situation.”

“Najeeb is known to be affiliated with the People’s Alliance (PA) party and its leader, Abdulla Yameen, the former Minister of Trade and half brother of the former President. He is said to be a guarantor of the former regime and retains tight control of the MMA,” Zuhair alleged.

“From the government’s point-of-view the MMA needs to be much more involved in the current situation, rather than the Governor being away on study leave. It has not released a single piece of regulation to address this issue.”

Islam meanwhile pointed out that the government had long been stating it intended to reduce the number of expatriates working in the Maldives – currently a third of the total population – “but we do not see this happening in practice.”

“Every day a lot of people are still coming into the country, on tourist visas from countries such as Sri Lanka and India,” he said. “There are very few genuine tourists arriving from Bangladesh, mostly they are on work permits. Why are they being allowed in without any work being attached to the work permits?”


“Efficiency” at heart of business concerns for expatriate insurance plan: MNCCI

The Maldives National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MNCCI) has called for greater efficiency in how the country’s labour and immigration officials deal with processing expatriate workers before imposing measures requiring employers to provide insurance packages for foreign staff upon arrival.

Immigration Controller Ilyas Hussein Ibrahim told Haveeru this week that although new applicants for work visas in the Maldives would now be required to have an insurance policy provided to them, a similar requirement for existing expatriate workers expected to come into place in March had been postponed.

Ahmed Adheeb Abdul Gafoor, Treasurer of the MNCCI, has said that although the business organisation does not hold any objections to insuring employees, it was hoping for more consistent and efficient processing of paper work for expatriate workers before implementing a system of mandatory insurance.

Notable issues of concern selected by the MNCCI’s Treasurer included difficulties in acquiring insurance for expatriate workers before they had arrived within the Maldives, the time frame afforded to industry to implement the changes and the actual relationships between the government and insurance providers over the new requirements.

“The current levels of bureaucracy involved with dealing with immigration and labour authorities for expatriates is very inefficient,” he said. “Under the insurance plans, there is no defining of expatriates coming here, so we are having to follow the same procedure for every single foreign worker at the moment.

Adheeb told Minivan News that there has been “concern”, particularly in “high turnover employment areas” such as construction, about the exact requirements for each type of employee bought into the country.

“High turnover [of staff] is a big problem, particularly in the case of small construction projects – of about three months,” he said. “It may be preferable to bring workers out for six months instead of the three required and whenever one expatriate returns home, we have to go through the same insurance process for each employee.

Adheeb claimed that protecting expatriates and keeping skilled workers within the Maldives was very important for business development.

“We have to accept that the Maldives does not have enough local labour force to meet the country’s requirements,” he said. “We need to keep hold of skilled expatriates.”

When asked whether measures such as insurance may bring greater accountability for businesses requiring expatriate labour, Adheeb claimed that a number of construction groups already had their own insurance plans in place and added that he was in favour of insurance programmes over all.

“We have some concerns over this move; for starters, we would like to see the current procedures in dealing with bureaucracy made more efficient,” he said. “I would like to see faster service, some companies are fast tracked [through the application process] but this is not the same for all businesses.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Immigration and Emmigration was unable to respond to calls from Minivan News at the time of going to press.

However, Immigration Controller Ibrahim told Haveeru this week that policies for determining whether suitable insurance policies and enforcing the new insurance rules were in place had not been decided upon, but he was confident employers were getting to grips with the measures.

“Because of the announcement, many people have begun insuring. It is something that must be done in the future. But right now only the new foreign workers are required to insure,” he told the paper.


Letter on expatriate workers

To the Employment Minister,

If one asks me what time it is, I would say it’s time for us to check and screen the expatriate workers working throughout the country, and the expatriate staff doing tourism and fishing industry jobs that Maldivian young men and women could do.

And if someone asks me why we have to do this, I would say it’s for the sake of developing our economy, for the sake of repairing the country’s damaged social fabric, for the sake of not making our country famous for spitting here and there (the majority of the laborers working here do it as if it’s part of their life or habit).

Minister, it’s unbelievable that we see 300-400 expatriate laborers standing at various corners of the capital Male’ like a minor demonstration, and at the same time the country’s Immigration Department and the Employment Ministry keep quiet and silent, enjoying the art of doing nothing.

I agree that we have to recruit laborers for government and private construction projects and also an individual can recruit laborers for building a house. But it doesn’t mean that these laborers live here for the rest of their life. I think the reason why we see 300-400 expatriate laborers at various corners of Male’ are because the country’s relevant authorities do not work together for the sake of the country.

In Malaysia, I have seen Malaysian young men and women working in the shops and restaurants, but here we see expatriate unskilled laborers doing everything for us. In Dubai we see same scenario as our country but I think we better look at Malaysia for making our fragile economy better. I tried to get a job in Malaysia and Singapore and it was impossible, but here a foreigner gets a job much easier than a Maldivian.

A friend of mine living in Malaysia told me that if the government authority knows someone making even a boakiba (short eat) and sells it, immediate action is taken by the authority, and that no Maldivian could think of earning an income there.

But here we see expatriates moving like the nationals – they can prepare lunch packs in their rooms and make money freely. I think this is a problem to be solved for the sake of the country’s economy and the country to remain as an independent country.

Thanking you,

Mohamed Saeed

All letters are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write a letter piece, please submit it to [email protected]


Expatriate worker stabbed and robbed

An expatriate worker was stabbed and robbed on Hithadhoo in Seenu Atoll on Monday, reports Haveeru.

The worker was allegedly robbed of Rf1,550 at around 9.30 pm while he was on a delivery, a sum including cash from the shop he was working at as well as his own.

The worker suffered cuts to his ear and finger but was not seriously injured in the incident.

Police have not yet arrested any suspects.


Expatriate found dead in Male’

An expatriate was found dead yesterday in a lane in Male’ near the Justice building, according to police.

The man was found unconscious on the road at 3.50pm and was taken to Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH), where doctors who examined the body revealed that he was dead upon arrival.

Preliminary examinations reveal no bruises or external injuries, say police, and the case is currently under investigation.


Health sector employees abusing overtime wages, says Minister of Health

Minister of Health and Family Dr Aminath Jameel has said employees of regional hospitals, health centres and health posts have been misusing overtime allowances, reports Haveeru.

Dr Aminath said the ministry was taking action to prevent health employees from abusing overtime allowances.

She said the employees’ claims of overtime was “out of bounds” and the ministry will be monitoring the matter.

Dr Aminath said the ministry was trying to reduce the number of expatriate workers in the health sector, as this would solve the differences in salaries between local and foreign staff.