Picture-perfect hotels and superb service are synonymous with Maldives tourism.
However the country’s number one industry has always grappled with a shortage of skilled workers.
To counter this dozens of skilled foreign workers enter the Maldives each year, so the recent change in procedures and requirements for work visas has thrown the industry into disarray.
“What we didn’t need was to re-invent the wheel,” says Ibrahim ‘Sim’ Mohamed, secretary general of the Maldivian Tourism Industry (MATI).
“Every day it becomes more difficult to operate tourism related businesses because of the changes in requirements and procedures for work permits,” Sim said.
The Honorary consul of Italy, Giorgia Marazzi, echoes a similar thought.
“The procedures are long and confusing now, and even 50 year old tourism professionals are obliged to show certificates,” he says.
Regulations surrounding work visas were recently changed. A deposit [to cover the worker’s return airfare] is paid to the Department of Immigration and Emigration, while the Ministry of Human resources issues an employment approval form. This must be translated into a work visa by the Department of Immigration.
“The sudden change, coupled with the fact that requirements are so high and stringent now, makes it difficult to comply with [the regulation] in some cases,” says Sim.
MATI members have complained about the issue in numerous meetings and forums, saying they need full time staff just to complete the paperwork and queue at the relevant ministries.
Among the problems identified is the lack of information sharing between relevant ministries.
Giorgia recounts the case of an Italian businessman who came to town and registered a company related to tourism and diving. He registered the logo and opened a bank account only to be refused a work permit.
“If you are promoting investment you have to enable a person to work legally in the country,” Giorgia said.
“Ministries should cooperate and have a comprehensive network of information and not work against each other.”
According to Mohamed Anees, HR manager of Sunhotels, “even if the deposit was paid at the HR ministry before the change in procedure, when you go to the Department of Immigration with the paper work you might be asked to pay the deposit again.”
An exasperated Sim accuses the different departments of “fighting for territory. Controller of Immigration Ilyas Hussain begs to differ.
‘It’s a misunderstanding on their part to think like that. There is no turf war, and we just give out work visas once the employment approval form is given by the HR ministry, and then people can work here legally.”
He adds the rise in deposit money is also to provide a few days’ accommodation in case a person has to be sent back.
“As immigration controller we need some sort of guarantee, and we need to see certificates to issue work visas. We deal with the money now, while HR deals with administrative issues.”
He says tourism industry should instead worry about paying bed taxes and other money owed to the government on time.
The need to show educational and trade certificates is a particularly contentious issue.
“It has to be attested, but lawyers and consulates attest it without even verifying the origin [of the certificates],” says Giorgia.
Anees agrees that the procedures are difficult and a necessary evil: “We bring foreigners as we can’t find skilled people here, so it makes sense to ask for certificates, and sometimes they reject the papers saying they’re not up to the mark.”
But he finds the amount taken as deposit money too high.
“It should be at maximum the amount of a return ticket to the country of origin, but now they are asking for much more.”
Anees also has problems with the HR ministry’s quota system for hiring foreign employees. At present the HR ministry dictates how many foreign workers a particular company can hire. The ministry also decides which jobs foreign employees can hold and the number of foreigners who can be employed in a particular job category.
“Sometimes we have to change job positions as per requirements, and then we are obliged to go through the whole process of advertising and all that.”
Instead, he reasons, a quota should be given and left up to the resort to fill as required.
Both Giorgia and Anees also feel that scrapping the requirement of a police report is a mistake: “You don’t know what shady people might turn up in the Maldives then.”
Shortage of skilled personnel
At the heart of the matter is a lack of skilled Maldivians.
“It is costly to bring in foreigners, but to train Maldivians takes money and man-hours, so some opt for the faster and easier option,” reasons Sim.
A businessman, who asked not to be named, working in the tourism sector says, he advertised for 20 job positions recently ranging from laborers to manager positions and got only one applicant, who was a foreigner: “in the Maldives there is no unemployment – it’s all voluntary [unemployment].”
According to statistics from the tourism industry, out of the 54 resorts in the study 27 were unable to attain the 50% Maldivian staff requirement. It was interesting to note that its was mostly resorts with foreign management that had the highest number of Maldivian employees.
“It is a colossal failure on the part of past and present governments that they hadn’t addressed this human resource issue,” Sim says.
He points out that Maldives gets more arrivals, there are more resorts opening up and resorts are of a higher standard, “yet the country lacks manpower.”
Societal attitudes also play a role: only white collar jobs are sought after by Maldivians.
“We have failed to imbibe in our youth the notion that work is dignified no matter what you do,” says Sim.
The education system is also not geared towards producing people for the main industries of Maldives, like tourism, fishing and construction, he complains.
The policy of running vocational training parallel to the education system the last 12 years has not paid off, he says, and every now and then parliamentarians whip up the issue to garner publicity and sympathy instead of working towards finding a permanent solution to the problem.
“We expected the new ministers to be more open and liberal minded, and instead things have gotten worse,” Sim says.
Deputy HR minister Hussain Ismail agrees procedures are now more restrictive.
“Before it was as businessmen wanted,” he says, adding enough forewarning was given before the implementation of new procedures.
“The different departments do share information, but of course there are hitches which we are trying to smooth out.”
As for the problem of certificates, Hussain says the ministry is now even accepting trade certificates.
“If a person does not have educational qualifications, he should be able to produce a trade one from wherever he has worked. After all he is being hired for his skills.”
The lack of skilled Maldivians doesn’t wash with him, and he takes as an example the case of a seaplane company.
“The company advertises for pilots, and in addition to the pilot license they also ask for four credit passes in London ‘O’ levels.”
He says despite the fact that there are now lots of Maldivian pilots, they are not hired due to the criteria of having specific number of ‘O’ level passes.
“If companies are willing to train foreigners why not train Maldivians?” he asks.
Hussain says the authorities will not ease work visa requirements just to make it easy for business.
“We have to look into social issues also and take them into consideration,” he argues.
However tightening the work visa procedures without solving the underlying issues might make “the tourism industry grind to a halt very soon,” Sim warns.