No effort made to follow up promises on human trafficking: HRCM

The Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) has accused state and private sector employers in the country of lacking consistency in their efforts to address human trafficking, preventing “real” change in controlling illegal migration.

HRCM member Jeehan Mahmoud told Minivan News that despite attempts under the present government to try and introduce new legislation, the Maldives had made little progress towards improving the treatment and rights of foreign workers over the last four years.

The government has in recent months launched a special campaign intended to raising awareness of the rights of foreign workers, while also last month ratifying eight “fundamental” International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions intended to bring legislation on employee rights and trade unions in line with international standards.

However, independent institutions in the Maldives have maintained that 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 though the country’s borders.

The Prosecutor General (PG’s) Office has confirmed that a lack of legislation has meant no cases have been prosecuted against human traffickers in the Maldives.

While accepting efforts were being undertaken by the present government to try and address human trafficking in the Maldives, trade unions, foreign diplomats and independent institutions have continued to raise concerns about the scale of the problem nationally.

The Maldives has appeared on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking for three years in a row. Should the Maldives drop to tier three – the worst category- then the country will face significant reductions in aid and potential travel restrictions on its citizens.

HRCM member Jeehan claimed that every time the US State Department had reviewed the Maldives’ efforts to curb human trafficking, successive governments had shown commitments to try and implement new control measures.

However, she claimed such efforts were often only temporary and not followed up in most cases.

“The effort is not consistent and that is why we are not seeing real change here. We have not seen change since our 2009 report and in the periodic reviews since then,” Jeehan said

Passport retention

HRCM member Jeehan identified the issue of employers retaining passports as a prevalent concern that had failed to be addressed since the commission carried out a study in 2009 assessing the employment situation in the Maldives for migrant workers.

“One of the findings was that passports were being kept not only by agencies or the companies themselves.  We also found the practice was used by the state in hiring teachers and nurses,” she said. “We had called for abandonment of this policy as migrant workers need access to their identity.”

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 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.

According to the HRCM, freedom of identity is a right enshrined in the Maldives constitution for any person residing in the country.

Jeehan added that the HRCM had since 2009 continued to recommend changing state-mandated practices for the processing visa documentation of foreign workers.  She said despite the efforts, the issue that had not been addressed by either the government of former President Mohamed Nasheed or the present administration of President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik.

“Our argument is why not find an alternative ID that would allow them to release a passport,” Jeehan said. “If the state kept a work permit instead, there would be no need for passports to be held.”

Despite efforts to outlaw the practice, Jeehan claimed that on the occasion of International Migrant Worker day back in December 2012 , a public forum was held with various stakeholders including the HRCM to try and raise awareness on critical issues facing migrant workers.

She added that during the course of the workshop, the HRCM had not been notified of any significant change in the practice of the state retaining passports.

“The state issued a circular prohibiting retention of passports that was applicable to private persons and agencies. But the state ministries continue retaining passports,” she claimed.

Having spoken with private sector employers about migrant workers rights, Jeehan added that many companies said they were following the state’s example by continuing to retain passports.

“The response we receive is that ‘if the state is practising this, we can do this as well’,” she said

Legislative focus

Despite criticism of efforts by the state and private sector to combat human trafficking, Jeehan claimed work had been undertaken to implement new legislation on combating human trafficking. She said this legislation was currently under review within parliament, stalled at committee stage.

The commission has said it remains involved in assisting the development of the human trafficking bill, which Jeehan said would be an important development towards addressing the rights of foreign workers.

According to Jeehan, a lack of legislation on human trafficking was regularly cited by authorities as a key set back to dealing with issues of labour exploitation and migrant rights.

However, she maintained that human trafficking itself goes back to the principle of exploitation, something that is prohibited in Islam and by extension the constitution of the Maldives.

“An estimated one third of the population is made up of migrant workers, so it is only justified we review this,” she added.

Jeehan claimed that as recently as last year, the Maldives Police Service did not have a legal mandate to even investigate potential cases of human trafficking.

The HRCM said efforts had now been taken to screen cases where foreign workers were complaining of non-payment of wages or not being given any free time, to ascertain whether they were victims of human trafficking.

She also expressed hope that the state would also move to clearly identify the individual roles that various stakeholders in the country would play in efforts to combat people smuggling; from institutions like the police and Immigration Department, to the human rights and youth ministries.

Government commitments

Besides signing the ILO conventions on labour rights, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs this month also inaugurated an initiative targeted at raising awareness of the human trafficking issue in the Maldives.

The strategy, entitled the ‘Blue Ribbon Campaign Against Human Trafficking’ promises activities to try and raise awareness among students and the business community.

Speaking at the inauguration of the campaign last month, Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Abdul Samad Abdulla stated that the initiative formed part of a larger plan to try addressing human trafficking in the Maldives.

This strategy is expected to include activities to try and raise awareness among students and the business community. The tourism industry, which employs the largest number of foreign staff in the country, was identified as another key focus of the initiative.

The ministry itself defines human trafficking as “taking undue advantage of a person through employing him, transferring him from place to place, taking guardianship of him, depriving him of making decisions on personal matters, assuming control over him through threats or abuse of power; or to create dependence, kidnap, or deceive him through any other means and take undue advantage of a person’s weaknesses and to conduct any of these activities in a manner that includes exchange of money from or to oneself.”

Under the new scheme, individuals held responsible for human trafficking offences would include staff in government offices mandated to oversee the issue, as well as companies and other groups found to be involved in illegal practices.

Employers who force employees to work with no respect or regard to protecting human rights and persons who obstruct the taking of legal action against people who commit human trafficking offences will also be held responsible, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“Corrupt practices”

Earlier this month, one local trade union working in the tourism sector alleged that corrupt immigration practices and the use of unregulated employment agencies by private and state employers were limiting efforts to curb illegal treatment and abuse of migrant workers

At the same time, a source with knowledge of the current immigration system highlighted that the now illegal practice of retaining passports – a long-standing habit of Maldivian employers – remained a key contributor to human trafficking in the country.

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.

Vice President for Nexbis Nafies Aziz told Minivan News at the time that “intelligence” received by the company suggested groups backing the country’s lucrative human trafficking industry could be seeking to sabotage the introduction of its BCS to undermine national security controls.

Foreign labourers are estimated to account for a significant proportion of the country’s workforce.  Just over a quarter of the Maldives population of 394,451 people is estimated to be made up of foreign workers, according to recent statistics supplied by the Department of Immigration and Emigration.

The official immigration figures found that the expatriate workforce in the Maldives had risen by September 2011 to 99,369 people from just 57,968 registered workers in December 2009.


Maldives government ratifies ILO conventions on worker rights

The Maldives government has ratified eight “fundamental” International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions designed to bring legislation on employee rights and trade unions in line with international standards.

According to the ILO the conventions, which were ratified by authorities on January 4 this year, outline rights in a number of areas including allowing staff freedom of association and the prevention of child labour and discrimination on the basis of gender, religion, race or age.

The ratification of the conventions comes as foreign governments and civil society organisations continue to raise concerns about rights abuses of expatriate workers in the Maldives.

Foreign labourers are estimated to account for a significant proportion of the country’s workforce.  Just over a quarter of the Maldives population of 394,451 people is estimated to be made up of foreign workers, according to recent statistics supplied by the Department of Immigration and Emigration.

The official immigration figures found that the expatriate workforce in the Maldives had risen by September 2011 to 99,369 people from just 57,968 registered workers in December 2009.

According to the local coordination team overseeing the ILO’s work in the Maldives, many of the rights outlined in the eight fundamental conventions are already included in the country’s constitution and the Employment Act 2008.

However, the project’s organisers told Minivan News this week that its main challenge was to try and implement these laws by working with the government as well as employer and employee organisations.

“Ratification of the conventions will be beneficial to workers and workers organisations as it will improve the national labour standards concerning the freedom of association and collective bargaining rights and also help ensure better implementation of these standards in practice,” a project coordinator for the ILO told Minivan News.

“Respect for freedom of association and collective bargaining rights can lead to better labour management relations and co-operation between them. This will reduce costly labour-management conflicts and promote industrial harmony and social stability.”

The eight fundamental conventions ratified by the Maldivian government this month are:

  • The Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29)
  • The Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105)
  • The Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87)
  • The Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98)
  • The Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100)
  • The Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111),
  • The Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138),
  • The Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182)

With the ratification of these conventions, which will come into effect in a year’s time, the ILO project’s coordinators have set three main objectives that it will aim to meet  over the course of the next three years.

These objectives include introducing a legal framework to implement international labour standards, improving the capacity of national mechanisms to resolve labour disputes and strengthen worker and employer organisations to try to improve overall working conditions and productivity.

In a statement released following the ratification of the conventions, Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Samad Abdullah praised the government’s ratification of the conventions as a “major achievement” for the present administration.

Dr Samad cliamed that the conventions would allow the country to break new ground in protecting labour rights in the country.

“It is also an important accomplishment in the government’s human rights agenda and one which will fill an existing gap in the national human rights framework,” he stated.

According to the ILO, the Maldives has become the fourth country to ratify all eight of the organisation’s fundamental conventions in the South Asia region. The Maldives became a member of the ILO back in 2009.

Beyond signing the convention on labour rights, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs this month also 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.

Rights concerns

Both these commitments have been agreed as the Maldives has come under continued criticism for its treatment of foreign workers.

Indian authorities by the end of last year warned that tightened restrictions enforced at the time on providing medical visas to Maldivians were a “signal” to the country’s authorities to address a number of concerns about the nation’s treatment of migrant workers.

A commission spokesperson expressed concerns over a number of practices being used by both public and private employers in the Maldives such as the confiscation of passports of some migrant workers.

Meanwhile, back in November, the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM) called for an end to discrimination against foreign workers, criticising Maldivian society for failing to recognise “the significant contribution” expatriates have made to national development.

However, concerns about worker treatment in the country are not exclusively focused on migrant workers.

A letter from the President’s Office claiming to have addressed alleged rights abuses by the state-owned Maldives Ports Limited (MPL) had been labelled “interesting, but not convincing” by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) last November.

The ITF previously raised concern over a lack of correspondence from the President’s Office, announcing the same month that it was calling on the government to intervene over “union intimidation”, or “face embarrassment wrought by widespread international solidarity action”.


“Mayday Mayday! We have a coup!”: MDP marks May Day

Thousands rallied in Malé on Tuesday campaigning for equal treatment of workers and protesting against the alleged “coup d’état” of February 7 in a rally held to mark International Worker’s Day, ‘May Day’.

The rally, organised by the ousted Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and led by former President Mohamed Nasheed, set out from Usfasgandu on the southern ring road of Malé with campaigners waving red and yellow ribbons, balloons, pom poms and drumming on makeshift instruments. Trucks blaring loud music accompanied the rally.

Nasheed resigned following a police and military mutiny on February 7, but later said his resignation was under duress and that he was deposed in a coup d’état. The MDP has held frequent marches calling for early elections and continues to hold nightly meetings at its protest camp area, Usfasgandu, located behind Dharubaaruge.

MDP Youth Wing President Aminath Shauna said the MDP had always worked for labor rights and that although the Maldives had joined the ILO in 2009, she was concerned that the Maldives continued to abstain from important ILO conventions such as those regarding collective bargaining, minimum wage, forced labour and child labour.

Mickail Naseem, 18, said he was at the rally to protest unfair promotions to police and financial benefits to the military at a time of financial crisis. In March, over a third of the police force received promotions while the military received two years of suspended allowances in a lump sum in April.

“Where is the equality? Certain police officers and military have received pay hikes, promotions and flats for housing. But the government has said the Maldives is bankrupt. This also increases pay differences between ordinary civil servants and the security forces,” Mickail said.

Another MDP supporter, Ahmed Yasmin, 30, held up a placard with the words “S.O.S. Mayday! Mayday! We have a coup!”. He had attended the rally “to have fun with my friends since it’s a public holiday.”

The colorful, noisy and peaceful demonstration stalled near former presidential residence Muleeage after police and military in riot gear blocked roads leading to the Republican Square, the President’s Office and Police and military headquarters.

A few hundred campaigners sat down in front of the police lines and were still there as of 7:30pm, but most of the rally participants dispersed. Verbal confrontations took place between MDP supporters and police. Minivan News overhead one police officer from behind a barricade tell a young girl that she was “very pretty” and that he would “like to have sex with her”, which was met with a torrent of abuse.

As of 7:30 pm, the sit in led by President Nasheed continued in front of Muleeage.

The MDP also plans to organise a rally to mark International Press Freedom Day on May 3.


UN Committee grills Maldives delegation on human rights commitment

A delegation from the Maldives headed by Attorney General Abdulla Muiz has reported to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which will release its findings in early September.

According to a UN report summarising the meeting, the delegation was questioned on “restrictions on the practice of religion, the rights of migrant workers, human trafficking, the lack of anti-discrimination laws in the country, the role of the Human Rights Commission and the requirement that all members be Muslim, citizenship laws and the stipulation that non-Muslims could not become citizens nor could they openly practice their religion, the discrepancy in secondary school enrolment rates between boys and girls, and the interaction between English common law and Islam in the legal system of the Maldives.”

The committee noted that the government’s historical position had “been to deny the existence of racial discrimination in the country as the Maldives has a small homogeneous population, of the same origin, pursuing the same religion, and speaking the same language.”

However it had acknowledged that a substantial increase in migrant workers “requires legislative attention”, the UN committee noted.

“In the absence of prejudices leading to racial discrimination in the Maldives, the government did not take specific steps in terms of education and teaching, and culture and information, to address racial discrimination. However, the report says in the Maldives the teaching of Islam promotes understanding, tolerance and friendship among nations and all groups,” the committee noted.

The report was presented to the committee by Muiz, who emphasised the “enormous progress” the country had made in recent years towards guaranteeing “fundamental freedoms and individual liberties”.

He did, however, acknowledge the “enormous challenges” the Maldives faced in ensuring that those rights now protected by law were actually enjoyed in practice. In particular, the Maldives delegation identified these as including “fragile democratic fabric, infant democratic institutions, religious fundamentalism, heavy drug abuse, the vulnerability of the country to environmental threats and most recently, human trafficking.”

Furthermore, the delegation claimed, the country’s Human Rights Commission “was one of the most active national institutions in Asia” and “fully compliant with the Paris Principles”, apart from the requirement that all members of the Commission be Muslim.

“Maldivian law did not provide for freedom of religion, although in practice foreigners were allowed to practice religions other than Islam in private,” the delegation informed the committee.

Nonetheless, the Maldives was “a culturally diverse society” that protected its vulnerable migrant labour population by imposing duties on employers, “including responsibility for the employee during their stay and other requirements”, despite the absence of health and safety laws.

“The right to association and the right to strike were now guaranteed under the Maldives’ Constitution,” the delegation informed the committee.

It noted that while the Maldives did not have any laws prohibiting trafficking in persons “and no official studies or reports had been conducted”, the government had a “strong policy to prevent the country from becoming a safe haven for traffickers.”

“Muiz asked the Committee to bear in mind that the democratic and legal framework of the Maldives was a work-in-progress,” the committee noted.

Delegation confronted

In contrast to the Maldives’ position that racial discrimination did not exist, the committee observed that cases of hostility and ill-treatment of the country’s increasingly large number of migrant workers – half the country’s total workforce – had been reported.

“The Maldives should consider acceding to conventions concerned with the rights of non-citizens and amend relevant regulations to allow non-Muslims to acquire Maldivian citizenship,” the committee suggested, and noted that there was “still no anti-discrimination legislation” active in the Maldives.

“It is necessary for the State party to enact legislation on prohibition of incitement to national, racial or religious hatred,” the committee stated.

The committee observed that there was a lack of demographic information on the Maldives, given the extensive size of its foreign labour force, and that “it would be useful to investigate whether there are tensions between Maldivian citizens and foreign workers.”

“Restrictions on the rights of migrants and other foreigners to prohibit the practice of religions other than Islam, except in private, were of concern as well. Was any one Maldivian citizen married to an individual practicing a different religion?” one committee member asked.

Delegation defends

In response to the committee’s questioning, the Maldives delegation contended that the Maldives had “capacity constraints” and “relied on the support of international organisations”, in which case the committee noted “a report longer than three pages would have been appreciated.”

Regarding the committee’s questioning on freedom of religion, the delegation noted that the Maldives maintained a reservation to article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on freedom of religion “and there were currently no plans to withdraw that reservation.

“This was a reflection of the deep societal belief that the Maldives always had been and wished to remain a 100 percent Muslim nation,” the delegation informed the committee, adding that “Muslims and non-Muslims lived harmoniously in the Maldives.”

“It was not true that under the new Constitution existing citizens could be arbitrarily deprived of their nationality if they were to stop practicing Islam. The Constitution was very clear on this point: no citizen could be deprived of his or her nationality under any circumstance. The Muslim-only clause under the citizenship article of the Constitution only applied to non-Maldivians wishing to become naturalised,” the committee reported.

The delegation acknowledged “increased reports of mistreatment of migrant workers by their employers”, but noted that the Maldives placed high importance on acceding to the eight core Conventions of the International Labor Organisation (ILO).

It also argued that “some of the rights and privileges enjoyed by foreign workers were even better that those enjoyed by Maldivians themselves”, such as those mandating the provision of food and accommodation for foreign workers.

“Foreign workers were not discriminated against in any way in the Maldives,” the delegation informed the committee.

In his concluding remarks, Muiz observed that the exercise of appearing before the committee “was tougher than even appearing before the parliament of the Maldives.”

Read the full summary


New Strike Act “terrifying”, say visiting IUF representatives

The International Union of Food workers [IUF] has expressed concern over the government’s new strike regulation at a joint press conference held by the IUF and the Tourism Employment Association of the Maldives (TEAM) today.

Dr Jasper Gross, Information Research Officer of the IUF, said that the new regulations – which requires staff to provide advance notice to employers of any strike action and not to inconvenience guests – violates the constitution of the Maldives. The regulation, if enacted, would contravene decisions of the ILO in regard to the rights of workers to strike.”

The Maldives became a member and accepted the obligations of the ILO constitution last year, becoming the 183rd member of the organisation..

‘’The new legislation is just a birthday gift from the Ministry of Human Resources Youth and Sports to employers,’’ said Dr Jasper. “It is a terrifying Act.”

Dr Jasper stressed that it was “remarkable” how many loopholes were in the regulations, “that basically mean workers cannot strike.”

“We are very very concerned about the new regulations,’’ he repeated.

In August, the Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) submitted a bill to parliament regulating industrial action conducted by employees in the Maldives, shortly after a strike at Kurumba resort reduced occupancy to zero.

Regional Secretary for IUF Asia Pacific, Ma Wei Pin, also described the new regulations as effectively banning workers from striking, which he believed “violates a basic right of workers”.

“Employers need to respect the rights of the worker, the resort management should accept the local trade union TEAM, and resolve these issues fairly,’’ said Ma Wei. “The suppression of the right of to strike is not helpful.’’

Ma Wei said banning strikes would be an obstacle to establishing a sustainable tourism industry in the country.

“The government needs to encourage workers and resort managements to deal with the trade unions, and urgently needs to deliver laws against the discrimination of trade unions,’’ he said.

Vice Pressident of TEAM Mauroof Zakir said the organisation had never initiated a strike, but only assisted when resort workers took the decision to strike themselves.

“We will stand against these new regulations, and we will bring this issue to the attention of the international community and trade unions,’’ said Mauroof.

Asked whether TEAM’s impartiality was subject to compromise because its President, Ahmed Easa, was also a ruling party MP,  Mauroof insisted Easa was not influenced.

“We are controlled by the resort workers,’’ he explained, “and what Easa is doing in parliament is trying to protect the rights of labors.’’

Ma Wei said the IUF will draw the attention of the government to the fact that the new regulations on striking were inconsistent with the ILO convention.

‘’Everywhere else in the world, when a strike is conducted the customers are inconvenienced,” he said. “But we should also know that strikes have to be conducted due to the carelessness of the management.”

Press Secretary for the President Mohamed Zuhair did not respond to Minivan News at time of press.

Strike action

In February this year management at the Centara Grand Island Resort in North Ari Atoll increased the service charge allocated to staff after workers held a strike.

A staff member told Minivan News that the staff held the strike because they were not receiving the service charges agreed them by management, adding that the management had persisted in giving them the lower amount “claiming that the room revenue was very low.”

On April 14 staff at Shangri-La were dismissed after they conducted a strike demanding to reinstate the job of four villa hosts, who were dismissed for playing PlayStation inside a vacant guest room.

More recently in August, more than 150 Maldivian and expatriate staff working at the Kurumba Maldives resort conducted a strike, demanding improvement of staff facilities.

A striking staff member told Minivan News that the 157 staff were striking over “low wages, pathetic accommodation, awful food, communication barriers between staff and management, and discrimination between local and foreign staff.”