High Commission in Dhaka closes due to “unprecedented fiscal problems”

The Maldives High Commission in Bangladesh has closed its operations, with acting high commissioner Ahmed Adil reportedly citing “unprecedented fiscal problems”.

“Even the foreign ministry’s budget has been slashed by 40 percent,” he told the Bangladeshi media. “It’s a very big cut.”

Adil stated that despite the closure, the excellent bilateral relations Maldives and Bangladesh would continue, and that an alternative arrangement would be sought to bridge the absence of a mission in Dhaka.

An unnamed source from the commission also told the Dhaka Tribune that severe budgetary constraints had prompted the shutdown, suggesting that diplomatic services would continue to be provided from New Delhi.

In a comment piece produced earlier this week, former Bangladeshi High Commissioner to the Maldives Professor Selina Mohsin described the decision as a “wrong move”.

“Diplomatic continuity is a necessity and reciprocity is essential to foster good relations with a friendly Saarc state. But countries are not always ruled by rational consideration of advantages, but often by unthinking foolhardiness.

High Commissioner between 2008 and 2010, Mohsin argued that the Dhaka mission played an important role in strengthening the bond between the island nation and Bangladesh.

“Bangladesh has over 70,000 migrant workers in the Maldives – more than from India or Sri Lanka. They face dubious recruitment procedures, their passports are seized by unscrupulous brokers on arrival, and often wages are withheld,” she argued.

Minivan News was awaiting a press release from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which failed to be published at the time of press.

A World Bank report produced late last year suggested that excessive state expenditure risked derailing the economy. Over seventy percent of the current budget is allocated for recurrent expenditure.

Similarly, the departing MMA governor urged the government to reduce expenditure. After proposing a record MVR17.95 billion budget in December last year – later passed – the MMA’s published response called for cuts that included a reduction in state apparatus to reflect the country’s size and income.

The Bangladeshi High Commission, opened in 2008, was one of the Maldives’ 13 overseas diplomatic missions. The country currently has embassies in China, Saudi Arabia, and Japan, with high commissions in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Singapore, and the United Kingdom.

The country also has permanent missions representing the country in Brussels, Geneva, and New York.

Estimates of migrant workers currently in the Maldives range from 70,000 to as high as 110,000 with undocumented workers estimated to be as high as 44,000.

Employment trafficking scams and fraudulent recruitment it is nearly impossible to reach a conclusive number.

The Department of Immigration and Emigration recently revealed that, in an effort to curb the numbers of illegal workers, it is strengthening action taken against those who employ or provide housing for undocumented migrant individuals.

It was also revealed that a voluntary repatriation scheme for undocumented workers had seen 4,400 workers out of 5,134 that registered for the programme leaving the Maldives since December.


Construction chief not ruling out “organised crime” behind foreign worker surge

Almost half the employees in the Maldives’ construction industry are unregistered, the head of the Maldives Association of Construction Industry (MACI) has told Minivan News.

MACI President Mohamed Ali Janah said an estimated 40 percent of the foreign employees in the sector were thought not to be legally registered.

Considering these numbers, Janah said he could not rule out the involvement of organised crime in certain employment agencies, which supply a large amount of foreign labour to building sites in the Maldives.

Earlier this month, the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) accused state and private sector employers in the country of lacking consistency in their efforts to address human trafficking.

The government – for its part – recently launched a ‘blue ribbon’ campaign with the aim of raising awareness of the rights of foreign workers, while also ratifying eight “fundamental” International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions.

However, local independent institutions in the Maldives say the country is yet to ratify a core convention on protecting migrant worker rights, while no legislation is in place to punish those involved in smuggling workers.

Migrant worker demand

Janah claimed that 95 percent of construction groups operating in the country were Maldivian owned. However, as the country’s second largest industry on a GDP basis, the vast majority of employees in the sector were migrant workers, he said.

“We employ a huge workforce of some 60,000 to 70,000 people,” Janah explained. “Of these people, sadly we have 40,000 to 50,000 who are expatriates. We estimate there are some 15,000 to 20,000 Maldivian staff,  which includes management through to the supply chain.”

Of these migrant labourers, Janah said only some 30,000 were registered as construction workers.

“There are no records of where [these workers] come from. This is something we need to correct,” he said.

Highlighting the huge growth in the country’s unregistered migrant workforce, Janah said that in 2003 there were just 3000 foreign employees working illegally.

“At the time we thought that number was too high. Today, it has exceeded 50,000. This is hearsay. We don’t have the right statistics on this, it could be 100,000, but who knows,” he said. “The truth is that the economy is thriving because of these people,” Janah added.

Employee “mismanagement”

Over the last decade, MACI has said it has sought to advocate against the growth of illegal labour and mismanagement of foreign labourers by the construction industry.

A lack of Maldivian workers looking for jobs in the industry meant that the sector – as with many of the country’s prominent industries – was dependent on skilled and unskilled workers from abroad.

The Maldives could learn from how other thriving construction markets were dealing with the exploitation of foreign work forces, he said.

“The Maldives is experiencing what Singapore and some Middle Eastern countries experienced in the 1990’s, which is a huge influx of an unmanageable immigrant workforce that is not registered,” he explained.

“I cannot call them illegal immigrants or something like that. But I also wouldn’t rule out that organised crime is involved in this. This is being done with the support of several agencies in [several] countries and needs to be addressed – this is something respective governments need to look into.”

Aside from the construction industry, Janah also called for greater regulation of third party employment agencies that were often responsible for registering and providing foreign staff to building companies in the Maldives.

“[These agencies] pay a nominal fee to register themselves, yet they do millions of rufiyaa in business. They should pay a security deposit themselves in case something goes wrong,” he said.

Janah claimed said his own Maldives-based construction group, Alysen Services Pvt Ltd, had now opted against using third party agencies in favour of its own HR department. He said some eight to nine million rufiya was spent on deposits for foreign workers.

Accepting that employment agencies were vital to meeting the country’s workforce needs, he said MACI recommended its members look at the track record of these companies to limit the likelihood that the staff they were hiring were victims of human trafficking.

“Our advice is that employees themselves should not be charged any fees themselves by agencies to come here to work,” he said, a policy recommended to all MACI members as the best way to avoid association with organised crime.

Managing the workforce

However, Janah contended that managing the country’s foreign labour market was not something the industry could do alone, adding that government involvement was vital.

He pointed to a need to learn from different construction models not just in the region but internationally, pointing to other nations that have worked to legitimise foreign workers by requiring individual construction projects to be registered with local authorities.

With this registry in place, Janah said construction workers would then be required to be attached to a legitimate project in the country.

He also pointed to attempts by the former and present governments to provide an amnesty for unregistered workers in line with a similar scheme run in Dubai.

However, Janah stressed that Dubai’s amnesty was followed by a much stricter policy on migrant workers including the use of a “proper border control system”.

By comparison, he noted that successive administrations in the Maldives had failed to address human trafficking problems before implementing such an amnesty.

“The problem is that the government just adds rule after rule without addressing [immigration] problems,” Janah said, claiming that companies legitimately employing foreign workers were being forced to pay for the mistakes of others.

“There is collateral damage as a result of these policies. Many companies are suffering from the [work] permit issue.”

MACI contended that the worker quota system employed by Maldivian authorities in recent years made it possible to register a business as a construction company, even without fulfilling the “basic criteria” required of such an enterprise.

He said authorities should require construction companies to be registered not just as a business entity at the Ministry of Economic Development, but also with the Ministry of Housing.

However, the MACI president concluded that much more work needed to be done by the construction industry itself to try and curb the practice of unregistered workers to ensure they were not being made the victims of human trafficking.

“A lot more work needs to be done by industry. Companies who are entering the industry should not take short-cuts and must adhere to rules,” he said.

Janah added that a failure to address these concerns would not be feasible for the country in the long run, particularly with the amount of US dollars leaving the country as remittances.

“We need these workers,” Janah said. “But can we manage with less if we are more efficient?”

Janah also reiterated concerns raised by the Immigration Department and President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik that a continued influx of unregistered and illegal workers could see the migrant population outgrow the indigenous Maldives population if unchecked.

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

The comments were made as a source with knowledge of the current immigration system also 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.

Meanwhile, back in January, a Malaysian IT company at the centre of legal wrangling over a deal to provide a border control system (BCS) to the Maldivian government alleged “criminal elements” could be behind efforts to scupper the agreement.


Rising migrant worker population threat to “Maldivianness, culture and nationhood”: President Waheed

President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik has warned the Maldives will face difficulties in seeking foreign assistance should it descend to Tier 3 of the US State Department’s human-trafficking watch list.

Speaking at a ceremony to celebrate National Day, Waheed stated the Maldives is now “forced” to take measures against changes to the “national character” due to the rising number of migrant workers in the country.

The Maldives has been listed on the tier 2 watch list for human trafficking for three years in a row. Waheed stated that if the country descends to Tier 3, “it would face difficulties, among other issues, in seeking foreign assistance”.

In 2012, the Maldives only narrowly avoided a descent to Tier 3 – the worst category – after presenting a written plan that, “if implemented, would constitute making significant efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.”

In his speech today (January 13), Waheed said the government was taking measures to prevent the country from falling into Tier 3 category of human trafficking, by initiating an awareness campaign underway and a draft bill on anti-trafficking submitted to the People’s Majlis.

Foreign influence threatens “Maldivianness”: President Waheed

In his National Day speech, Waheed also warned that the Maldivian population risks being overtaken by the migrant population in just six years if immigration continues to grow at its current rate.

Waheed stated that this was something “no Maldivian can and will, want to accept”.

“If the number of migrant workers continues to increase, [Maldivian] national character will be lost,” the President was reported as saying on the island of Fonadhoo in Laamu Atoll.

“If the influence of foreigners grows, [the] threat of negative impacts on Maldivianness, culture and nationhood is not unrealistic,” he added.

Border control system crucial in addressing human-trafficking

At the National Day speech, the President was reported as saying that an effective border control system was crucial for addressing trafficking.

Last month, parliament voted unanimously to instruct the government to terminate the border control project agreement with Malaysia-based IT group Nexbis, over allegations of corruption.

Speaking about the BSC project last month, Majlis Finance Committee member Ahmed Hamza told Minivan News at the time there was a “worry” within the immigration department that their own border control system would not be sufficient.

Furthermore, Hamza stated there was a “possibility” that human trafficking could increase should the Nexbis contract be cancelled, and to combat this parliament will need to provide a “sufficient solution to deal with these problems”.

Speaking at National Day, President Waheed claimed there were approximately 111,000 migrant workers using work visas and over 40,000 illegal migrant workers in the Maldives.

‘Blue Ribbon Campaign Against Human Trafficking’

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

The strategy, entitled ‘Blue Ribbon Campaign Against Human Trafficking’ 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 MOU states that the media outlets will produce and broadcast programmes aimed at disseminating information on the issue of human trafficking.

Nasheed’s National Day statement

Meanwhile, former President Mohamed Nasheed gave his own National Day statement calling for a security force that is “impartial and honest” to help build the nation.

“The nationalism that had defended [our] freedom [in the past] should be beneficial to the people and their progress.

“The true guardians of this system are the people. Today, due to an uninvited interference by the security forces to the people’s rightfully elected government and their interference to the progress of the nation has resulted in re-emergence of the old political culture,” Nasheed said, in a statement.


Human Resource Ministry owed more than MVR 350 million in unpaid work permit fees, student loan repayments

The Ministry of Human Resources, Youth and Sports failed to collect MVR 168.4 million (US$10.9 million) in expatriate work permit fees for the past three years and MVR 191 million (US$12.3 million) in repayments for student loans, the ministry’s audit report for 2011 has revealed.

The audit report (Dhivehi) made public on Monday stated that information from the past three years on expatriate work visas showed that the year-on-year increase in foreign workers arriving in the Maldives was “alarming.”

“Records from the Department of Immigration and Emigration show that from July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2011 the state did not receive MVR 168,414,000 (US$10.9 million) owed as work permit fees,” the audit report revealed.

Records showed that the number of foreign workers living in the Maldives without paying work permit fees in 2009 was 16,934.

The figure increased to 27,793 in 2010 and 39,756 in 2011.

While the expatriate workforce in the Maldives as of December 2009 was 57,968 registered workers, the figure had risen to 99,369 by September 2011.

Of the total number of foreign workers, 55 percent or 54,653 expatriates were from Bangladesh and “69 percent of these, or 37,710 people, are working in the country illegally.”

Of the remaining 44,716 from other nations, 18 percent or 8,048 were illegal workers.

“Therefore, records show that the total number of foreigners working in the Maldives illegally is 45,758 (46 percent of foreign workers),” the report revealed.

Student loan repayments

The student loan repayments were meanwhile owed for two loan schemes launched respectively in 2000 and 2005.

As of December 31, 2011, the report found that the ministry failed to collect 154.6 million (US$10 million) as repayments for a long-term student loan programme launched in 2005 from a national higher education fund.

Of MVR 155.6 million (US$10 million) released between 2005 and 2011, the audit discovered that only MVR 904,872.28 (US$58,681) was repaid.

“Students who went for higher education under the scheme have not been repaying the loans because the department of higher education had not sent repayment schedules with details of the total amounts owed,” the report found.

If “adequate efforts” had been undertaken to collect payments, the Auditor General’s Office noted that “a revolving fund could have been established to provide higher education opportunities without additional expenditure from the state budget.”

Meanwhile in 2000, the report explained, the ministry launched a programme with World Bank loan assistance titled the “third education project” and issued MVR 250 million (US$16.2 million) under the scheme, with a specified portion to be paid back to the ministry.

“While it was determined that 15 percent from government employees participating in the scheme and 50 percent from participants from private companies would be collected, we note that repayments have not been sought from anyone,” the report stated.

“And as a result of the ministry not properly maintaining records of how the money was spent on students under the scheme, we note that details of how funds were released for individual students are not available and no one was sent repayment schedules.”

The report observed that MVR 37.5 million (US$2.4 million) estimated as repayments owed under the scheme has not been collected due to the “carelessness, incompetence and negligence of those in charge of the ministry’s relevant department”.

In February 2012, the report noted, the department of higher education and its staff at the Human Resource Ministry were transferred under the Ministry of Education.

Violations of Public Finance Act

The Auditor General’s Office stated that it did not believe expenditure out of the ministry’s budget was “mainly” in accordance with the Public Finance Act and “to the extent specified in the budget, on matters determined in the budget and in ways that would achieve the objectives of the ministry’s budget for 2011.”

In addition to the ministry failing to collect student loan repayments and unpaid work permit fees, the audit report noted a number of instances that were ostensibly in violation of the Public Finance Act and regulations under the law.

The audit discovered that seven political appointees were paid salaries and allowances in 2010 with no records of attendance.

The responsibilities of the seven senior officials who did not sign attendance sheets were unclear, the report noted.

Moreover, the audit found that a state minister was paid MVR 165,897.93 (US$10,758) as salary from February 13, 2012 to May 2012 despite not attending the office during the period.

While the state minister had submitted a written request for a holiday on February 13 before flying abroad, the report noted that the ministry had not made official arrangements for the leave of absence.

On February 7, 2012, former President Mohamed Nasheed resigned under controversial circumstances following a police mutiny at the Republic Square.

“[The state minister] was removed from the post by the President’s Office on July 22, 2012,” the report noted.

In another case, the audit discovered that MVR 865,500.70 (US$56,128) was deposited for seven students studying in Malaysia under the office’s staff development scheme, in excess of the official approved stipend.

In place of RM11,760 (Malaysian Ringgits) as six month’s stipend for each student, a sheet sent to the bank from the ministry mistakenly stated US$11,760, the report found.

While the ministry’s staff studying in Malaysia received an additional MVR 123,642.96 (US$8,018) each, the report noted that no attempt had been made to recover the excess amounts.

The audit report blamed the “failure of the employees to carry out their responsibilities” in preparing, checking and authorising the sheet sent to the bank.

The ministry meanwhile incurred MVR 133,938 (US$8,686) as fines for late payment of water and electricity bills in 2011, but no employees were held responsible and the loss to the state was not recovered.

The report also found that a total of MVR 420,000 (US$27,237) was paid as allowances in 2011 – at a rate of MVR 2,500 (US$162) a month – for 15 members of the National Sports Council under the ministry, without official approval from the government.

The report noted that the council held only seven meetings in 2011, each lasting for about an hour and with half the council’s membership in attendance.

Meanwhile, as a result of failing to properly maintain stock inventories, equipment purchased by the ministry was not registered and five laptops and 15 printers were lost.

The audit also discovered that the ministry provided MVR 200,000 (US$12,970) to the Shaviyani Milandhoo island council in June 2011 to set up a net around the island’s football stadium.

The funds were not approved in the 2011 budget but were released based on a pledge by the President to the islanders, the report stated, noting that such expenditure was “in breach of budgetary rules.”

Cancelled beach games

The audit report revealed that the ministry spent MVR 1.28 million (US$84,306) for “a first-ever beach and water sports tournament in South Asia” that never took place.

In February 2011, event organisers told Minivan News that the “Maldives Beach Games 2011” would bring hundreds of athletes from around the world to compete in 10 sporting events.

The international games were launched in February with a laser show and an appearance from renowned Sri Lankan cricketer Sanath Jayasuriya at a ceremony in Male’s Kulhivaru Ekuveni Indoor Hall.

The audit report meanwhile noted that the reasons for the eventual cancellation could not be discerned from the official documents.

The expenditure – made through the Maldives Olympic Committee – included over MVR 542,000 (US$35,149) on advertising and MVR 103,450 (US$6,708) on “a mascot and theme song for launching the beach games.”

Equipment, furniture and other items purchased for the cancelled games cost MVR139,545 (US$9,050).

Of the ultimately wasteful expenditure, the report noted that MVR 843,571 (US$54,706) was spent in violation of the Public Finance Act and regulations as estimates were only sought from one party.

A member of the sports council created by the ministry was meanwhile paid MVR50,000 (US$3,242) – without a public bidding process – to transfer sand from a soccer pitch made for the games to the artificial beach, the report found.

The Olympic Committee spent MVR 117,000 (US$7,588) to prepare the soccer pitch in the vacant plot in front of Villa College.

Moreover, a deputy minister and the sports council member travelled to Bangalore at a cost of MVR57,825 (US$3,750) purportedly in relation to the games, but the purpose of the trip was unclear as an official report was not prepared.


Maldives to restrict expatriate travel

The movement of foreigners throughout the Maldives will be restricted, according to new rules implemented by the ministry of human resources, youth and sport.

All foreigners wishing to travel between islands from 1 February 2010 must present appropriate documents to the captain or person in charge of the vessel, the ministry revealed.

Speaking to Minivan News, Minister of Human Resources Hassan Latheef said the travel restrictions were being implemented to reduce the number of illegal expatriate workers travelling between islands.

“The problem of illegal workers in this country is huge, we have been getting many complaints from islands,” he said.

“An example is in Laamu atoll: illegal workers have become involved in agricultural business and are driving local farmers out of business.”

He acknowledged that “while we can’t deport everyone, I believe that stopping them from moving around is the first step towards solving this issue.”

Proper documentation

From February all foreigners must carry one of three documents to be able to travel around the country: either a valid work permit, proper visa documents for visitors, or a special letter from the ministry allowing travel.

Any captain or vessel owner which transports foreigners without these documents will face legal action, the ministry said.


Asked how the community might react to such measures, Latheef said “There won’t be much difficulty in implementing these measures, because even now ships have to keep a log of all the passengers it carries. There will be no inconvenience at all, as most crews will be able to check documents very fast and efficiently.”

Asked about the impact on non-working foreigners in the country, Latheef said “All they have to do is provide a visa or document showing their purpose in the country.”

Tourists “may find this alarming,” admitted  Ahmed Solih, permanent secretary of the tourism ministry.

“But if the situation is explained, they will understand,” he said.

One expatriate currently working in the country wasn’t so sure.

“As someone who travels on a daily basis does this mean I have to carry my documents with me in case they are checked? Having to carry around papers all the time feels very restrictive,” he said.

“It feels like there is a currently a bit of a witch-hunt against expatriates, with the retraction of the liquor licences and the difficulty getting work permits – is the government trying to drive out skill sets the country doesn’t have?”

Solih said the problem of illegal workers was a national issue, particularly for a relatively small community like the Maldives.

“These measures may seem dramatic but this decision has only been made after many other alternatives have failed. I am sure there will be measures in the rules to account for the tourism industry.”