Indian authorities report hundreds of workers forced from Maldives without wages

The Indian High Commission in Male’ has said it is aware of hundreds of cases over the last three months where its nationals have gone unpaid, before facing deportation or being forced to return home without their earnings.

State institutions and bodies including the country’s Labour Relations Authority (LRA), police, immigration officials and the foreign ministry have all been accused by the high commission of failing to fulfil their duties, and – in some cases – “deliberately encouraging” the mistreatment of foreign workers.

The concerns have been raised by Indian authorities after the Bangladesh government last week temporarily halted migration of its own nationals to work in the Maldives – unless accredited by the state – over fears they were becoming victims of a “section of unscrupulous recruiting agencies”.

In June, the Maldives was placed on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking for a fourth consecutive year – with the US State Department noting conditions of “fraudulent recruitment, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or nonpayment of wages, and debt bondage”.

Indian High Commission sources – citing the example of the Bangladesh Government – said that its own authorities should now consider similar intervention after increasing instances of workers being denied salaries and basic human rights.

“No employer can take a foreign national’s passport, yet this is happening. Some semi-literate workers who are here cannot draft letters or seek justice. Without pay they cannot go to the Civil Court,” said a commission source.

“So they are having to leave the country either with no salary, or instead compromising and getting just some of the money they are owed. Ultimately their employers just contact agents and then bring new workers to the country.”

Minivan News was last week shown several files containing correspondence by the Indian High Commission detailing its communications with Maldivian private employers who have not provided expatriates their wages, despite accepting that payments are owed to former Indian staff.

The majority of promises for financial reimbursement remain unfulfilled at time of press, with the employees in question having been forced to return home or turn to the high commission for food and support, Indian authorities have said.

Commission support

Indian nationals Santosh Kumar Ram and Harendra Kumar are the latest expatriates forced to leave the Maldives, after unsuccessfully pursuing months of unpaid wages that left them without food or income, and forced to beg their own government for financial support.

An official for the Indian High Commission said that the two men, who had both been in the Maldives since last year, had communicated their concerns on July 22, 2013, alleging they had not been paid by their employer for the final six months of their employment.

Despite the intervention of the high commission, both men – who had been staying in shelter provided by their employer – had been declared absconders by the state, resulting in them leaving the country this week as deportees. Their former employer, who denied responsibility for the two men, did provide return flights for the two Indian nationals, but declined to pay them the earnings claimed to be outstanding.

“This is completely unacceptable,” said a diplomatic source with knowledge of the case.

While provided shelter by their employer – who has denied ever employing Santosh Kumar Ram and Harendra Kumar – the two men have not been given food, relying instead on the commission to ensure they were fed.

The two men had previously sought support at the Department of Immigration and Emigration’s shelter for undocumented workers in Male’, opened this year as part of attempts to offer a more “humane” means of tackling the issue of unregistered foreign workers in the country.

However, the high commission said both expatriates were denied assistance at the shelter as their then-employer, despite not providing food, had given them accommodation.

In a similar case earlier this year, the Indian High Commission said another six of its nationals had been forced to leave the country without four months of salaries they were owed by their employer. The commission argued that they could not afford to remain in the country for ongoing legal action to claim their money.

In a letter seen by Minivan News, one employer said that delayed payments to the six workers was related to the “financial crises”, but promised the Indian High Commission the debt would be settled.

The six affected workers, since returned to India, are still waiting for their earnings at time of press.

High commission sources said that they had also been made aware of semi-literate foreign nationals being sent to other islands by their employers for non-existent work.  Once on another island, they were then being reported as having fled the company with whom they are registered for their visa.

Department of Immigration Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Abdullah Munaaz and Chief Superintendent of Immigration Zubair Muhammad were not responding to calls from Minivan News at time of press.

Minivan News was also awaiting a response from the Foreign Ministry at time of press over the high commission’s concerns.

“Systematic abuse”

Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali has previously told Minivan News that while almost all foreign workers coming to the Maldives arrive under registered companies, some were finding themselves “illegally used” by employers due to “systematic abuse” of the visa system.

Foreign low-wage workers are often lured to the country by agents after paying a ‘recruitment’ fee or entering into debt – sometimes as high as several thousand dollars – that is shared between local agents and recruiters in the country of origin, most significantly Bangladesh.

In many cases the workers are then brought into the country ‘legitimately’ by a specially-created paper company, created using the ID of a complicit or unwitting Maldivian national, for the stated purpose of working on a ‘construction project’ of dubious existence.

The exact scale of the Maldives’ unregistered foreign workforce remains unknown, with estimates ranging from between around 40,000 people to potentially double that amount.

In April, Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali confirmed that authorities had targeted the return of 10,000 unregistered workers by the end of the 2013.

The pledge to return a pre-determined number of expatriates was criticised at the time by the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM), which raised concerns that some workers were potentially being punished for the actions of employers or agents acting outside the law.


Maldives’ satellite bid, Chinese involvement leads to India’s alleged security concerns

The Indian government is intervening at the “highest levels” to “push” the Indian Space Research Organisation (IRSO) to submit a proposal for the joint manufacturing, launch and operations of a Maldives’ communications satellite as a means to improve bilateral relations, claims the Hindustan Times.

The IRSO did not initially submit a proposal, considering the project “not viable” given China’s interest and presence in the Indian Ocean Region. They later requested the Indian Ministry of External Affairs to partly subsidise the project, according to Indian media.

The High Commission of India (HCI) in the Maldives is unsure whether the report’s claims are accurate.

“The HCI knows of the [Communications Authority of Maldives (CAM)] request for proposals and discussions with the Maldivian government did occur,” HCI official Shri P S Karthigeyan told Minivan News today.

“However, beyond that the current status of the project is not known,” he added.

Karthigeyan confirmed that Maldivian Defence Minister Colonel (Retired) Mohamed Nazim is traveling to India April 15 to 18, was its unaware if his agenda includes discussions regarding the satellite project.

“The topic is on the bilateral agenda and will be taken up with Nazim. Not only Chinese companies but others too are interested in the Maldivian project,” media quoted an anonymous Indian Ministry of External Affairs official as saying.

Indian security agencies are concerned about increased Chinese participation in neighboring countries’ communication satellite projects, according to various Indian media outlets.

The Indian government plans to discourage giving orbital slots to China through a “mix of investments and diplomatic negotiations”.

India’s Antrix Corporation could bid for this project to scuttle any possible venture with the Chinese, reported the Hindu Business Line.

“ISRO may consider sending a delegation to Maldives to explore the possibility of cooperation in space technology. Maldives could be sensitised to India’s security concerns with regard to the presence of third countries in areas close to its borders,” an Indian government official was quoted as saying.

A meeting was held in late March with Indian intelligence agencies, ministries, and the department of space to discuss China’s growing influence in South Asia, according to Indian media.

“Analysts suspect a Chinese hand behind recent setbacks India has suffered in the region, such as the scrapping of GMR’s airport deal in Maldives and Sri Lanka raising duties on Indian auto imports. China’s economic rise is gradually eroding India’s ability to wield influence in its immediate neighbourhood,” claimed the Economic Times.

The CAM Chief Executive Officer Ilyas Ahmed has denied receiving an official proposal from India, however a proposal from the Indian government “must be considered,” according to local media.

“We are looking to complete the process during this month. The selecting of a company had been delayed due to the processing,” Ahmed stated.

Companies from China, UK, Netherlands, Cyprus, Luxembourg and Thailand had “expressed interest” prior to the proposal submission deadline, claims local media.

The CAM extended the proposal deadline from January 31, 2013 to February 28, 2013 after interested parties expressed difficulties because the previous time period for submission was too short.

Nazim’s dealings with China

The initial CAM project announcement was made while Nazim was on an official five-day visit to China, where he signed a military aid agreement with Chinese National Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie.

Nazim met with two Chinese companies interested in launching and operating a satellite designated for the Maldives during a December 2012 visit to China, former Minister of Communication Dr Ahmed Shamheed previously claimed.

According to Shamheed, Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim has already been approached by various Chinese companies who have expressed interest in the satellite venture.

“At first, I had been involved in casual meetings with these companies, but now it seems to getting more serious. Nazim had even questioned as to why we have not yet signed an agreement with them,” Shamheed alleged.

Shamheed previously told Minivan News that the Maldives government was potentially entitled to an “orbital slot” for a satellite from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). However, because the Maldives’ currently lacks the capabilities to launch and operate a satellite, the state would have to lease out the slot to an external party.

Defence Minister Mohamed Nazim, the Communications Authority of Maldives, and the Indian Space Research Organisation had not responded to calls from Minivan News at time of press.