Economic Ministry stops issuing work permits to foreign photographers

The Ministry of Economic Development has decided to stop giving out work permits to foreign photographers starting from yesterday (January 26).

“We want to provide the opportunity to Maldivian youth and to ensure that photography stands up on its own as an established industry,” Minister of Economic Development Mohamed Saeed has told Haveeru.

“This will encourage small and medium sized businesses to develop,” he explained, adding that only Maldivians will be allowed to provide photography services in resorts.

The current government has pledged to create more jobs for local youth by replacing expatriate workers with Maldivians.

Maldives Photographer’s Association (MPA) President Mohamed Shafy told Minivan News that the government’s decision is a “huge accomplishment” for the organisation, which has been working relentlessly to provide more opportunity for local photographers.

Shafy said that foreign nationals were taking up opportunities which would otherwise be given to local photographers – especially at resorts – by demanding a smaller price than their local counterparts.

He explained that the association had discovered, via the recently passed Right to Information Act, that 14 foreign nationals were working in the photography industry in the Malé area, despite just 3 having been licensed throughout the country.

“We do not mind the photographers who come for a certain project or with famous celebrities,” said Shafy. “However, some of these resorts have foreign resident photographers for weddings and occasions while it could be Maldivians doing the job.”

Shafy said that the association has held talks with various government officials regarding the matter.

“We have had talks with tourism minister Adeeb, [former] defense minister Nazim and we were told they will try to change things around. So we did not think that the minister Saeed would take such a drastic measure.”

Another local photographer described the move as a “very good decision” which would provide a lot of opportunities to work at resorts.

While there are 1500 professional photographers registered with MPA, Shafy estimates that there are over 3000 photographers working professionally in the country.

“It used to be that tourists would come to the Maldives just for the underwater scenery and pictures. But now we see more honeymooners who want their pictures taken,” said Shafy, describing the potential of the industry.

He expressed his belief that the decision would prompt a lot of photographers who had given up on the profession to return to the industry.

The theme of ‘Maldivian work for Maldivians’ forms a major part of the government’s current policy for strengthening the economy and reducing youth unemployment.

Youth minister Mohamed Maleeh Jamal has told Minivan News recently that there are over 13,000 individuals in the youth unemployment registrar. Shortly after the current government took office in late 2013, the youth ministry said it would attempt to resolve unemployment by replacing expatriate workers with locals.

After pledging to create 94,000 jobs during its five year term, the government recently announced that it would be illegal to hire expatriate workers as cashiers starting from April this year.

Speaking at the time, Saeed said: “A large percentage of the Maldivian youth is unemployed and looking for unemployment. All they need is support and guidance.”

In December last year, former Managing Director at Maldives Airports Company Ltd Bandhu Ibrahim Saleem told a Majlis committee that difficulties with local staff had resulted in a dependence on foreign employees, and even military assistance, to keep the international airport running.

Saleem – who had been called before the Majlis to explain the high number of foreign workers at Malé international airport – was removed from his post for unspecified reasons last week.

Related to this story

Foreigners barred from cashier jobs as President promises work for Maldivians

MACL chief says airport dependent on foreign workers


Budgetary constraints temporarily halt efforts to bring in foreign experts for CoNI report review

Efforts to bring in two international legal experts to review the Commission of National Inquiry (CoNI) report have been put on hold due to budgetary constraints, local media has reported.

The parliament’s Government Accountability Committee had attempted to seek the legal experts in order to look into the report of the controversial transfer of power in February 2012.

Parliament Secretary General Ahmed Mohamed was quoted as saying that there were no funds available to the committee in order to bring in the foreign experts.

The committee had earlier chosen a legal expert from Denmark’s Copenhagen university and two lawyers to review the report, who were scheduled to start on Friday and work for seven days, local media said.

Maldivian Democratic Party MP Ali Waheed said that the committee will make a decision and set a date based on “what is decided by the Parliament Speaker on the budgetary issues”.

Parliament Speaker Abdulla Shahid is currently abroad and is expected to return next week, according to local media.


Maldivian ship’s captain threatened with drowning over unpaid salaries: crew member

Indian crew members aboard a Maldivian cargo vessel docked in Dubai have threatened to drown the ship’s captain over unpaid salaries, fellow workers have alleged in local media.

Six of the Maldivian crew aboard the Waadhee Progress vessel, currently docked at a harbour in Dubai, claim to have been continuously threatened by Indian crew members for the past three months.

A crew member told the Sun Online news agency yesterday (January 4) that the foreign nationals working on the ship were unhappy with the situation as they had not been paid for an entire year.

The crew member further alleged that the foreign crew had threatened to drown the ship’s captain if the alleged issue of outstanding salaries were not paid by the end of today (January 5).

Police Spokesperson Sub-Inspector Hassan Haneef told Minivan News that authorities were looking into the matter, but had received little information on the vessel’s situation at present.

A crew member working aboard the Waadhee Progress has told local media that due to the vessel’s current location, it was hard to clarify the exact situation on-board.

He further alleged that an assault between the foreign crew on a previous occasion had left a fellow employee with stab wounds.

“We also haven’t received our salaries for as long as [the foreign crew]. They are threatening us. They carry knives and iron bars. The last thing they said was that the captain will be drowned if the salaries are not paid by the end of tomorrow,” the Maldivian crew member claimed.

“We are scared, haven’t even been sleeping. The company has said that they have contacted the coast guard and the police and they are looking into it. But we are still in the same situation. We have, sort of, been hijacked.”

Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) Spokesperson Colonel Abdul Raheem said that the country’s coastguard had received no information regarding the incident at present.

“This matter will probably be taken up by the respective foreign ministries in Dubai and Maldives. I should imagine the Transport Ministry will also be looking into the matter,” Raheem told Minivan News.

The Dubai Maritime City Authority (DMCA) was not responding to calls from Minivan News at the time of press.

State Transport Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said that he was still involved in “airport matters” when contacted today, and was unable to comment on the issue, forwarding Minivan News to other sources in the ministry.

Meanwhile, an official from Waadhee Shipping and Trading – the company who own Waadhee Progress – told local media that the company had been informed of the situation and were looking into it.

Minivan News was awaiting a response from the company at time of press.


Teased, touched and assaulted: foreign women facing harassment

Walking down a crowded street two weeks ago in the Maldives capital of Male’, Lisa*, 25, had one of the most horrific experiences of her life.

Teased, touched and assaulted by two young men on the street, the Australian foreign worker was left deeply upset and stunned over the harassment that occurred in broad daylight.

“I was walking near the swim track when these two boys in their 20s came behind me and grabbed my ass. I screamed and they walked away. I kept walking forward and then suddenly saw the two boys approaching me again. I was really scared because I did not know what they were going to do next,” Lisa recalled.

“They came back, surrounded me and started to pass comments at me. They touched me inappropriately, grabbed me and one of them slapped me,” she continued. It lasted for about 20 seconds I think. I took my phone and warned them I was calling the police. Then they grabbed me once more and just ran off.”

She had travelled from Australia to work in the Maldives just a few months before the incident, and had not expected to face harassment or attack, she said.

In the last few weeks foreign women from diverse nationalities working in Maldives have come forward and told Minivan News about various attacks, ranging from verbal abuse to physical and sometimes sexual assaults.

Clarice*, a 23-year-old French woman, was teased and stalked on the street while she was walking home on March 1.

“I was walking past the artificial beach around 12:30pm in the afternoon. A group of four local boys, maybe in their 20s, started following me. They passed comments like ‘you are my angel’ and one of them grabbed my arm and said ‘oh your skin is so beautiful’. I really did not understand what they wanted and I was really scared because they kept following me,” Clarice explained.

“Because they were following me I went back to the office, instead of going home. I live alone so I was did not want them to find out where I live,” she added.

Clarice decided not to inform police because it was mostly verbal abuse, she said.

Unsafe at home

Meanwhile, several other women interviewed exclaimed that the “threats have extended from streets to homes”.

Katie*, a 34-year old American who has worked in Male’ for almost a year, said she thought she had figured out the Maldives, its culture and its people. Respecting the Muslim background, she said she was sensitive to societal rules, dressed modestly and until recently, thought of Maldives as a safe place.

What changed her impression was a horrific incident last month which a local man sexually assaulted her while she she was unlocking the door of her apartment.

“It was early morning around 4:00am. I was unlocking the door to my house when I felt someone grab my neck from behind. At first I thought it was my friends who had left just seconds ago. But the grip was very firm so I turned around and saw a man wearing white shirt and pants. I screamed at the top of my voice,” Katie recalled.

“He grabbed my breasts, ripped the t-shirt I was wearing. I tried to hit him with my hands, screamed and tried to escape. At that time the door was unlocked and he had pushed me inside. I managed to hit his groin with my feet. That’s when he let go of me and ran out. I tried to follow him but he fled on a motorbike too quickly,” she said. “I was so distraught, I could not even call the police.”

Neighbors who heard her screams called the police. Around five to six officers arrived on the scene with a forensic team.

Disappointed with police

However, according to Katie, the police did not take her statement until three weeks later and then got the details of the attack completely wrong.

“The police had stated my necklace was stolen. It broke off during the attack, I still have it. The attacker must have known the necklace I was wearing was not gold because it was made of multi-colored beads,” Katie pointed out.

She added that she had later found out from CCTV camera owners nearby her house that the police had not requested the footage or interviewed neighbors for clues. Frustrated over the lack of police assistance, she called the US embassy. “I don’t think they would have even taken the statement if the American Embassy had not called them,” Katie claimed.

Lucy, a 36 Irish woman, also talked to Minivan New about an attack, and a disappointing experience with the police, following a robbery and sexual assault she encountered last year.

She was attacked while walking up the flat’s staircase with two other female friends around midnight.

“The apartment was on the sixth floor and I was walking upstairs to my friends apartment. They were couple of steps ahead of me and I was walking up when, suddenly, a man came behind me and grabbed my breasts and tried to pull my clothes,” Lucy recollected.

“I go to the gym and I lift weights. But I couldn’t get him off. He was quite a large and it seemed he was under the influence of something. I hit him with my bag several times. He did not attempt to grab it and run. I think his intention was to pull off my clothes. By then my friends had heard the screams and came running downstairs. That’s when he released me and ran off,” she added.

Lucy however noted that the attack had not affected her as much as when she was robbed just weeks before the attack, and found the robbery to be the “worst ordeal”.

“My laptops and phone was stolen from my apartment. That was the worst ordeal because somebody broke into my room while I was sleeping,” she observed.

Thanks to her strong personality, Lucy said she managed to get over both attacks and visit Maldives again this year. However, she echoed others’ grievances over the lack of support from police.

“When police came to the flat the only response I got from them was ‘this never happens’. They did not take my statement or follow up on me. I don’t think the case was investigated,” she claimed.

Lisa, who earlier spoke to Minivan News, also complained over the lack of police professionalism after she reported the harassment on the street and added that it seemed “police did not the case seriously”.

Police Spokesperson Sub-inspector Hassan Haneef responded that police investigate all the complaints and officers who investigate foreigners cases are skilled and capable in communicating in English: “But we do face difficulties in communicating with Bangladeshi expatriates,” he said.

He noted that it was difficult to state whether harassment of foreign women was on the rise, but confirmed that such cases had been reported.

Haneef also urged women to report such attacks, assuring that complete investigations would be conducted.

Lisa, Clarice, Katie and Lucy say they are awaiting justice and for a day they can walk the streets without being teased, touched or assaulted. A day when they don’t have to be extra cautious on streets, scan around for possible stalkers or triple check their locks.

In the meantime all they ask from the local community is “not to assume we provoked the attacks and step in to help a woman being harassed”.

*Names changed


Maldives a tourism leader in Asia-Pacific region

The Maldives was among the most popular destinations in the Asia/Pacific (APAC) region for the month of July, with a 27 percent increase in visitors.

Hong Kong followed closely with a 22 percent increase in visitors.

“Even during times of economic uncertainty, the Asia/Pacific region continues to perform strongly, reinforcing its image and position as a powerhouse of international travel and tourism,” said Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Strategic Intelligence Centre director, John Koldowski.

Asia Pacific (APAC) tourism destinations continue to see an upward trend in visitors annually. July 2011 saw a seven percent regional rise in arrivals compared to the same month in 2010.

Although Japan suffered a 36 percent drop in July arrivals, allegedly due to the earthquake and tsunami, Northeast Asia on the whole saw a six percent gain on July 2010. The Pacific, meanwhile, experienced a 3 percent drop in foreign arrivals in July 2011.

A Care Ratings Maldives report recently stated that Maldives tourism has made an impressive comeback since the 2009 global recession, and investment from China and India is expected to surpass precedents in coming years.

This year, the Maldives reached 700,000 arrivals by September. According to Tourism Ministry statistics, 19.9 percent of these arrivals were Chinese.

The increased activity within the APAC region could have a cultural impact at home. “Maldivian staff are more familiar with Western culture,” said Maldives Association of Travel Agents and Tour Operators (MATATO), Mohamed Maleeh Jamal. “Many speak Italian, French, German. So, the shift required to cater to more Asian guests and customers has lead many Maldivians working in the industry to familiarize themselves with Chinese, Japanese and Korean languages and cultural practices.”

Jamal pointed to the 2004 tsunami as the turning point for the Maldives’ tourism market.

“Before then, tourism was dominated by western European countries, and travel companies in China and the Middle East had limited access. Resorts were reaching occupancy levels regularly, and so expansion was not necessary,” said Jamal.

After the tsunami, however, interest from western Europe declined and the tourism sector was forced to work more closely with neighboring countries and their travel agencies. “The Maldives was also receiving complaints that the market wasn’t diverse enough,” said Jamal.

Jamal added that China is an important trading partner for the Maldives, and there was room to expand the business relationship.

But the Maldives has several advantages in the Chinese market. “All countries want to get tourists from China, and the Maldives has an advantage,” said Jamal. “It carries an image of paradise islands and tropical vacations, which is very appealing. In addition, the Maldives is becoming a celebrity hot spot. Given the celebrity worshiping culture that is increasingly common in China, the Maldives is very appealing.”

Jamal commented that Sri Lanka is trying hard to compete with the Maldives’ market.

Tourism is the largest contributor to Maldives’ GDP and foreign currency, accounting for 70 percent of the national GDP indirectly. Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) aims to draw 1 million tourists to the Maldives by the end of 2012.

PATA international visitor arrival figures suggest that improved economic stability is bolstering APAC’s tourism trend.

According to Care Ratings, Foreign Tourist Arrivals (FTA) surged this year as China’s economy flourished and European economies made a slow comeback. Chinese tourists are projected to account for 15 percent of Maldives FTA by 2020.

But PATA studies note that the source market is shifting into northern Europe and Asia.

Koldowski pointed to a 50 percent increase in Russian arrivals so far this year, and a 14 percent jump in South Asian arrivals in July with 90,000 more visitors than the same month in 2010.

Southeast Asian arrivals to the region grew by 12 percent during the same time frame.


Foreign hotel and resort workers concerned over financial changes

Expatriate resort workers have expressed confusion over new regulations restricting monthly remittances to 100 percent of workers’ salaries, which they fear may may leave them unable to take supplementary income, such as tips and service charges, out of the country.

The government has said the decision, published in mid-May in the government gazette, was intended to reduce the amount of money sent overseas by those working in the country illegally, either without a work permit or by taking jobs ‘on the side’.

Workers exceeding the limit, and organisations providing the transfer facility, would face a fine.

However, in many of the country’s resorts, service charges and ‘unofficial’ tips can amount to up to 70 percent of a worker’s total income.

“If the transfers are limited to salaries then the tips and service charges will be considered illegal money,” one foreign worker, a guest relations officer (GRO), told Minivan News. “For me that is 75 percent of my income.”

The GRO added that due to the isolation of some resort properties, workers would be unable to reach a bank every month to send their income home.

“There is one ferry a week [to an island with a bank], but not my home branch. To go to Male’ the flight costs US$200 – I can’t transfer money every month, and I can’t spend all my money in the Maldives,” she said.

A lack of information outside local media reports in Dhivehi meant that many foreign staff were in the dark over the pending changes.

“Nobody is sure what is going on. This [lack of confidence] may encourage people to take their money out of the system altogether,” she predicted.

Several foreign workers Minivan News spoke to at a hotel near Male’ also expressed confusion and frustration over what they feared could be a financial impracticality to continuing to work in the Maldives. They noted that the hotel was to begin paying all staff in rufiya, following the Maldives Monetary Authority (MMA)’s recent announcement that it would enforce transactions in the country’s legal tender.

Minivan News contacted a range of authorities dealing with monetary policy, but was unable to get a clear indication of what the regulations would mean for foreign workers.

State Minister for Finance Ahmed Assad and Minister for Economic Development Mahmoud Razee both said they were not in a position to clarify the matter and referred Minivan News to the MMA.

Assad suggested that while the Ministry published official notices in Dhivehi, employers had a duty to keep their foreign employees informed of the implications of any changes to policy.

Assistant Manager of the MMA’s Monetary Policy and Research Division, Ibrahim Ameer, told Minivan News that he understood the regulations were currently pending with the Ministry of Human Resources and that income from resort workers would be taken into consideration, however he noted claims in media reports on the regulation that only basic salaries could be remitted.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Human Resources meanwhile referred Minivan News to Deputy Minister Hussain Ismail, who was not responding at time of press.

Head of the Tourism Employee Association of the Maldives (TEAM) and Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Ahmed Easa told Minivan News that the organisation had met with the MMA when the regulations were being drafted and that he understood workers would be able to send their full incomes overseas on presentation of their work visa to the bank.

“The idea is to stop illegal workers from remitting money,” he said. “I think it is tied to income rather than salary, as long as the proper documents are provided. It should not be a problem so long as workers have a work permit. That’s what I have been told, and I haven’t received any complaints yet.”

However, earlier reports on the regulation have suggested it would encompass not just illegal workers, but those taking on ‘unofficial’ extra work – a common practice for many of Male’s expatriate workers, some of whom are paid as little as US$70 a month for full-time construction work. In many cases, this is despite reported promises of salaries of up to US$400 by unscrupulous employment brokers, who charge poor and illiterate people in countries such as Bangladesh fees of between US$3000-4000 to come and work in the Maldives.

The dollar crisis in the Maldives has brought to the fore the remitting of salaries by expatriate workers.  In a recent report, Ameer from the MMA noted that “each expatriate worker will on average remit US$100 per month to their countries. That is US$8 million per month and US$96 million a year. This is an amount that can and should be mitigated.”

Easa told Minivan News that the Human Resources Ministry, “to be honest, has nothing to explain. The Maldives can’t afford this, and we have to have rules to stop the existing open environment.”

The Immigration Department meanwhile reported that the number of expatriates in the country would reach 100,000 by June, after increasing by 10,000 in just three months. The report came as the Ministry of Human Resources published regulation permitting the recruitment of domestic servants without a quota.

The payment of salaries to foreign workers in rufiya is also a concern raised by foreign workers, concerned at their inability to convert the local currency to dollars.

“It may be difficult at this time, but the MMA is reinforcing a law from the early 1980s,” Easa noted. “All these years the MMA has not enforced the law. Right now we have a shortage of foreign exchange, and [expatriates] might face difficultly for a couple of months. But the country doesn’t have a choice.”

TEAM’s Vice President Mauroof Zakir acknowledged receiving concerns from resort workers regarding payment in rufiya.

“We received complaints where workers wanted salary in dollars in instances where the business is earning dollars,” he said, adding that this was already the case for many executive staff who had money paid into accounts outside the Maldives.

Furthermore, Zakir noted complaints from staff who’s wages were now being paid at a rate of Rf 10.42 to the dollar – the minimum rate following the government’s float of the rufiya within a 20 percent band of a pegged Rf12.85 – despite bank rates sitting at Rf 15.42.

“They don’t know the rate at which management is getting dollars,” he said. “I think it is a big concern that the government is not doing anything to raise awareness [for expatriate workers], apart from releasing statements to local media in Dhivehi.”

During a recent interview with Finance Minister Ahmed Inaz, Minivan News questioned the enforcement of rufiya at a time when there was doubt as to whether this could be exchanged into dollars, and the impact this would have on confidence in the Maldivian economy.

“We believe the market is currently unstable because of the changes we have brought, and that these changes will take three months for the various variables to work,” Inaz acknowledged.

“There will be a lot of low confidence and instability, and that will not only be felt by the expatriates. All our imports and consumables, medicine, education – is imported. But we are confident we can get through this.”