Corrupt immigration practices, unregulated agencies fueling migrant worker abuse

Corrupt immigration practices and the use of unregulated employment agencies by private and state employers are limiting efforts to curb abuse of migrant workers and prevent illegal practices such as retaining staff passports, a Maldivian trade union has alleged.

The Tourism Employees Association of Maldives (TEAM) has claimed that while companies are not permitted to retain the passports of foreign workers, some hospitality operators – as well as unregulated third party agencies and government ministries – are still keeping employee travel documents without consent.

The comments were made as a source with knowledge of the current immigration system told Minivan News that the practice of retaining passports – a long-standing habit of Maldivian employers – was a key contributor to human trafficking in the country.

The source, who wished to remain anonymous, said despite improvements late last year among some state employers, the issue still needed significant work from government and private enterprise if it was to be resolved.

Last year, the Department of Immigration and Emigration issued a notice (Dhivehi) expressing concern at the rising numbers of undocumented workers in the country, and set out a revised visa system to try and combat potential people trafficking.

The document included a clause stating that under no circumstances should a passport or travel documents be possessed by anyone other than the rightful owner, and threatened legal action against anyone found to have infringed these rights on the grounds of human trafficking.  An unofficial translation can be read here.

Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali was not responding to calls from Minivan News at time of press.

In October last year, a senior Indian diplomatic official expressed concern over the ongoing practice of confiscating passports of migrant workers arriving to the country from across South Asia – likening the practice to slavery.

Tourism workers

With the tourism industry one of the largest employers in the Maldives, TEAM Secretary General Mauroof Zakir alleged that relevant authorities in the country were either not able, or unwilling, to address abuse of foreigners.

“The issue of abuse of migrant workers is not being addressed by concerned authorities very much. We have a corrupted Immigration Department that is not able to handle these issues,” he said.

According to Mauroof, the practice of resort operators keeping worker passports was a “complicated issue” due to the common practice of outsourcing the hiring of foreign staff to agencies. He contended that a number of resorts and hotel operators were either keeping passports of staff themselves, or doing so through third party employment agents.

“Passports are being kept, often for stupid reasons. While passports should not be kept by employees, I am sure companies are doing this anyway,” he said.

Mauroof claimed that even this week, TEAM had received complaints that one multi-national hotel operator in Maldives was insisting on retaining the passports of its foreign staff, in some cases against their wishes.

Mauroof also criticised the use of third party employment agencies in particular, alleging that by relying on unscrupulous labour suppliers, resorts risked inadvertently hiring illegal workers.

“One complaint we received involved a resort paying a group of migrant workers US$100 as a monthly basic salary,” he claimed, adding that this did not include service charge payments.

A common human rights abuse involved the housing of foreign staff in substandard conditions. In one example, a group of labourers from Bangladesh were not provided with a toilet in their accommodation, forcing them to use the facilities at nearby mosques.

According to Mauroof, although TEAM’s constitution did allow for foreign workers to become members, only a small number of migrant employees had so far joined the union.

TEAM said it was at present handling three cases relating to the treatment of foreign staff.

With a majority of the country’s tourism workforce made up of foreign staff, Mauroof expressed concern that a large number of immigrant workers could see their basic rights infringed by employers with no realistic chance of seeking legal redress.

Societal attitude

A source with knowledge of the Department of Immigration’s work over the last several years said that while employers, including government ministries, had stepped up efforts to cease retaining passports, it would take “some time” before the issue was resolved.

The source claimed that the practice of retaining passports had been part of the employment culture in the Maldives for a long time, and that changing wider societal attitudes was challenging.

“Withholding passports infringes the basic rights of workers. We are talking about someone’s identity here. Addressing the matter is also the first step in working to prevent human trafficking,” the source claimed. “[Retaining passports] has been part of the culture here for a long time – the Education Ministry and Tourism Ministry have all done this. Keeping passports has been practised since foreign experts began coming to the Maldives.”

The source told Minivan News that the Department of Immigration and Emigration has sent “numerous memos” against the practice of retaining passports, but alleged that certain agencies favoured keeping worker documentation to better manipulate them.

“This is a common practice seen all over the world. But it creates major problems. If a foreigner wishes to go to law enforcement agencies for assistance, they will be asked to identify themselves with a passport,” the source said.

Third party agencies appeared to want to keep the passports to be able to “manipulate” foreign workers for their own financial advantage, the source explained.

“I do not believe that people are aware [keeping passports] is such a bad thing. Big companies, government employers and resort companies are all known to have done it,” the source claimed. “There has been an improvement that we have seen since late 2012 towards stopping the retention of passports. We have talked with government ministries and tried to resolve the matter, however when passports are being kept for visa processing they are not always returned.  This is a big challenge for employees in the outer atolls.”

The same source stressed that while ministries were showing improvements in returning passports to foreign workers, it may take “some time” till the matter was addressed properly.

Minivan News understands at present that the Department of Immigration is temporarily unable to renew work visas for expatriates, and is instead providing a three month extension period to foreign workers as a stop-gap measure. The temporary measures were imposed as a result of ongoing disputes over the controversial implementation of a new border control system provided by Malaysia-based IT firm, Nexbis.

Sources within the immigration department warned Minivan News that the country could have to resort to a “a pen and paper system” for monitoring immigration if the country’s courts approve a parliament vote to scrap the Nexbis deal, without providing an adequate replacement.

Resort challenges

Several resort operators in the Maldives, speaking on condition of anonymity, said while they did not use employment agencies themselves, the level of bureaucracy faced in hiring staff – especially for properties far from Male’ – did sometimes require third party assistance.

The general manager of one resort told Minivan News that the property had its own HR department to obtain documentation for its foreign employees, rather than relying on a third party.

“We do all the application processes ourselves and we have staff passports here in a fire-proof safe,” he claimed. “Staff can have these documents back whenever they request them.  If they do not want to be here, they are welcome to leave.”

Despite having opted against the use of employment agencies, the general manager added that, particularly for resorts in the country’s outer atolls where travel to the capital was difficult, some hospitality operators had little choice but to turn to employment agencies.

“In their defence, the state uses such a bureaucratic system that the government plays a part in these problems,” he claimed. “They have to simplify the [visa application] process. I would say some 70 percent of the rules they have are a joke.”

Another multi-national resort operator with properties across the Maldives confirmed that it did make use of some employment agencies, but favoured sourcing staff either internally from other operations, or from local islands. A source from the resort stressed that in the two years they had worked at the property, they had received no complaints concerning employment agencies they had used to bring in foreign workers.

Blue Ribbon Campaign

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs earlier this month inaugurated an initiative targeted at raising awareness of the human trafficking issue in the Maldives.

Entitled ‘Blue Ribbon Campaign Against Human Trafficking’, the strategy is expected to include activities to try and raise awareness among students and the business community.

The Foreign Ministry announced that it had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with multiple local media outlets in the country as part of the campaign’s aim to raising awareness of human trafficking and other related issues.

The Maldives has come under strong criticism internationally in recent years for the prevalence of people trafficking, and the  country has appeared on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking for three years in a row.