Labour authority plays down expatriate worker culture-clash claims

In the second of a two part article, Minivan News looks at the challenges facing skilled expatriates coming to work in the Maldives and the current systems in place to prevent both employees and employers from suffering workplace malpractice. Read part one

The Minister of Human Resources  Hassan Latheef has said that the country’s Labour Relations Authority has not received notice of any cultural difficulties between expatriate staff and local employees in the Maldives. However, the country is planning amendments to employee rights.

Amidst complaints from some expatriates about alleged difficulties and mistreatment from local employers, Latheef suggested that in some cases, language and legislation were key barriers to ensuring workplace harmony.

Several European and Australian skilled expatriates who spoke to Minivan News criticised certain employment practices that they claimed led to clashes with their employers. These clashes are said trigger premature job dismissal, and in some instances force employees to flee the country.

Minister Hassan Latheef, speaking to Minivan News earlier this year, rejected suggestions that any cultural clashes were occurring between foreign workers and their employers, at least as reported by the Labour Relations Authority.

“In the work place, I do not see any cultural differences that are being brought up and creating issues [between expatriate workers and employers],” he said.

According to Latheef, however, the Dhivehi language was seen as a major potential barrier to harmony between foreign workers from outside the region and their local colleagues and employers. He said workers from countries like Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh did not generally face this barrier.

“There is one thing in common for an Indian worker, a Sri Lankan worker or a Bangladeshi worker who is working in the same site doing the same work – their language of communication is Dhivehi. That keeps them not so much nationalistic,” he said, referring to any potential difficulties foreign workers are said to face. “We haven’t come across any cases [of cultural discrimination] as such and this has not been raised as an issue by anybody so far – fortunately.”

The minister did advise caution when addressing the treatment of workers, either national or foreign. Preventing potential widespread difficulties in the future, or culture clashes between bosses and their staff, was important, he said.

“I do sense that if we neglect [the issue of treatment of foreign worker] or keep our eyes shut, this could create problems because you know with Bangladeshis [working in the Maldives], I’m sure they face a lot of things that are not common in other countries,” he said. “So if we don’t keep in our minds that this could be an area that someday might create problems, we always have to be cautious of the issue that these workers are of different nationalities. I know I’m very cautious of that.”

Latheef claimed that legislation –particularly in areas like labour relations – was another key area that the government had pledged to address.  With an estimated 100,000 expatriate workers believed to have been hired in the Maldives, 45,000 are thought to be skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers from Bangladesh. According to Latheef, the High Commission for Bangladesh based in Male’ has worked with the ministry on numerous occasions to resolve any humanitarian concerns or workplace issues that have occurred with its nationals in the Maldives.

Both Former Bangladeshi High Commissioner to the Maldives, Professor Selina Mohsin, and the serving Controller of Immigration Abdulla Shahid have previously told Minivan News that failures in immigration policy left foreign workers vulnerable to substandard treatment and workplace malpractice.

Latheef claimed that concerns over employee treatment were being addressed. Legislation was awaiting approval for local and foreign workers alike that was aimed to cover a wide variety of issues relating to staff and employer rights.

“There is a bill being drafted, a very comprehensive one on industrial relations that would have provisions for making trade unions and everything to do about lockouts, picketing and striking, regulatory bodies’ functions and the Labour Relations Authority – it’s very comprehensive,” he said.

Echoing comments from the country’s employment tribunal, which is independent of the Human Resources Ministry and the Labour Relations Authority that falls under its remit, Latheef said that the majority of complaints received were from local workers, particularly in the country’s tourism industry.

Latheef added that about 95 percent of complaints received by the Labour Relations Authority from expatriate workers involved the alleged failure of an employer to pay wages. He said living conditions or overall treatment were not a commonly raised issue. But the minister believed local workers differed from their expatriate colleagues.

“Maldivians rarely complain about the pursuit of [unpaid] salaries – most of the time, they complain about the conditions at work or their living conditions. Most of the complaints I should say come from resort workers,” Latheef said. “Their complaints come from not being paid a service charge they are entitled to, to conditions of their accommodation and alleged discrimination from senior management.”

Among proposed changes to labour laws, the government last month invited comments on amendments to the Employment Act targeted at setting new living standards for foreign and local workers. These standards aimed to align with International Labour Ogranisation (ILO) recommendations.

The Human Resources Minister claimed that many potential problems currently facing expatriate employment in the country were expected to be eradicated by next year. He anticipates new systems for hiring foreign workers will be in place as well.

The claims were made after the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) assumed the duties of front-line immigration staff and Human Resources Ministry officials handling employment for a several weeks in June, following allegations of corruption in the work permit process.

The controversial decision, criticised by opposition MPs, was said to have Lateef’s support. Lateef believed military assistance was vital to reforming the processes of immigration and hiring expatriate labour.

“I don’t see the problems we have now will be there in 2012,” he said. “For instance we have a backlog of roughly 40,000 expatriates working here illegally,” he said. “The scenario would be very different in dealing with the ways we think of and the manner we act [to employees] on a happy day. But it is not a very happy day for us.”

View from the Employment Tribunal

The country’s Employment Tribunal, formed in 2008 to rule on disputes between employees and employers, previously said it had not received any complaints of alleged workplace discrimination. It also said expatriate cases represented a minority of the overall complaints received.

A tribunal spokesperson, who wished to remain anonymous, added that although the tribunal had not dealt with cases such as forced labour or discriminatory behaviour from employers, “this does not mean it is not taking place fairly openly.”

“I think it is all happening in the country, even if we do not receive such cases. Anybody who is in this society knows it is happening in the country,” the spokesperson added, emphasising that employment laws were designed to treat local and foreign workers equally regardless of their nationality.

The tribunal itself is not currently able to enforce its decisions through the courts, even by ruling against breaches of contractual or legal obligations without additional amendments to the Employment Act.

Accepting this current lack of enforcement capabilities, the tribunal spokesperson added that the Labour Relations Authority did have a legal mandate to take action against employees deemed to be in violation of employment rights.

The spokesperson said it was therefore vital to ensure that inspections of work premises and practices were being carried out efficiently  “[The Labour Relations authority] has the mandate to go to workplaces to supervise and inspect and see if it’s all according to the Employment Act and they can also take action if it is not. Like for example, if the work conditions are not good enough as per the law, if they don’t have a contract, or if they are receiving a salary or not, these people can check on that, but we can’t,” the spokesperson said. “We are more like a court, so we can only attend to the claims submitted to the tribunal and only go on with those cases. I think if the (Labour Relations Authority’s] inspections are conducted well there will be less problems, the institution would be better actually.”

The spokesperson added that ultimately employers and employees alike could come to the tribunal with allegations of breaches of contract, but claimed workers in the Maldives were not aware of their rights or the process of getting a verdict from the tribunal.

“A claim has to be submitted within three months if there is a dispute,” the spokesperson said. “I think awareness [of the tribunal’s work and requirements] is very important especially for foreigners, though locals also have the same problem.”


Govt to propose amendments to Employment Act

Amendments to the Employment Act will be presented to the next session of parliament, Minister of Human Resources, Youth and Sports Hassan Latheef has said.

In an interview with Voice of Maldives on the occasion of May Day, the minister said the amendments have now been sent to the president’s office and were part of the process of ratifying conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

The minister said a draft legislation on introducing trade unions and collective bargaining has also been completed.

The Tourism Employees Association of Maldives (TEAM) will hold a May Day rally in Male’ today.