Port workers strike to “send a message to the government”

The Maldives Ports Workers Union (MPWU) has taken strike action today following the Supreme Court’s decision – backed by the government – to postpone the second round of the presidential election.

“We are taking our constitutional right to give a message to the government,” said Ibrahim Khaleel, President of the Maldives Ports Workers Union.

Around 90 of the union’s 490 members opted not to come into work for today’s morning shift, though Khaleel pointed out that workers would return to work for the later shift.

“There is not much work there today, but next week we have a charter boat with more than 300 containers. If we are not given an election date, we will stop any future operations. We are just giving that message.”

“The ports union will do this again and again if they do not listen to us,” said Khaleel.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to give a verdict on its election annulment case today – filed by the Jumhooree Party (JP) after its defeat in the first round earlier this month.

After the Elections Commission expressed its intention to go ahead with the polls – scheduled for yesterday (September 28) – the court issued an order to security forces to halt proceedings by force if necessary.

Khaleel said a decision was made not to picket outside the ports today, alleging the port’s management “sent thugs” to attack union workers picketing the port earlier this year.

He argued that police protection had been requested on this prior occasion, but had not been forthcoming.

Both the MPWU and the Tourism Employees Association of Maldives (TEAM) joined forces in May this year to demand amendments to the recently enacted Freedom of Assembly Act.

Clause 24(7)b of the law prohibits any gatherings at the country’s ports, airports, or resorts, without police authorisation – a clause the unions have claimed effectively banned strike action.

After TEAM’s call for “prolonged strikes” last week should the presidential run-off be delayed, Minivan News has received reports of a number of politically motivated dismissals in some of the country’s resorts, in what some staff described as a “firing spree”.

Import dependency

Vice President of the Maldives National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MNCCI) Ishmael Asif warned of the likely impact such strikes could have on the country.

“As a country that relies heavily on imports for all of its needs,  a ports strike could have severe impacts on business in the country,” he warned.

As small island state with with a land mass of only 115 square miles, the Maldives has near-total dependency upon imports for basic foodstuffs and commodities, as well as goods used to supply the country’s luxury tourism industry which is indirectly responsible for 90 percent of the economy.

The country’s “excessive reliance on imports” was discussed in a recent government report into economic diversification, which noted that the country’s current account deficit had grown to US$600 million (27 percent of GDP) in year 2012.

“The import dependency continues to grow. The CIF [cost, insurance, and freight] value of merchandise imports has increased from us$120 million in 1990 to us$1.5 billion in 2012,” read the report.

It also noted that the country imported over 90 percent of foods in 2012 – worth US$318.9 million –  resulting in “huge implications for food security as well as inflation.”

Male’s port – managed and administered by the Maldives Ports Ltd (MPL) company – handled 580 ships in 2012, processing over one million tonnes of freight.

Current MPL CEO Mohamed Latheef told Minivan News today that he was unaware of any strike activity.

The MPWU staged a small strike last year after it alleged the MPL had removed the workers’ television after they had used it to watch the Maldivian Democratic Party aligned Raajje TV. MPL claimed the disagreement was a misunderstanding.

That strike received high-profile backing from the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).


Waheed to visit China to enhance trade

President Mohamed Waheed Hassan has revealed his plans to visit China on an official state visit next week, highlighting the continued significance of the nation to Maldivian interests.

“China is a fast developing nation and most products are being made there. Both small and larger countries are trying to establish trade ties with China. Hence we should also follow suit,” Waheed told local media upon his return yesterday from a state visit to Sri Lanka.

The last official state visit by a Maldivian President to China came in May 2010 when Mohamed Nasheed visited the Shanghai World Expo.

Nasheed met Chinese President Hu Jintao during his trip, Dr Waheed is himself reportedly expecting to meet Prime Minister Wen Jiabao next week.

The Foreign Ministry has said that more information about the visit would be released to the media in the coming days.

Ministry of Economic Development’s figures show that imports from China have more than doubled between 2010 and 2011, reaching US$68.9 million dollars.

Maldivian exports to China were reported to total just $26,000 last year, consisting largely of fisheries products.

Vice President of the Maldives National Chamber of Commerce and Industries (MNCCI) Ishmael Asif explained that the potential of Sino-Maldivian ties could be better realised through increased awareness of nature of the island nation.

“The Chinese are yet to understand logistics in the Maldives, including its politics,” he said. “We are trying to educate them on these things.”

He added that efforts were already being made in the field of education in order to “help us understand one another’s culture.”

In addition to trade ties, China has become increasingly important to the Maldives’ in terms of interest from tourists.

China leapfrogged the United Kingdom in 2010 to become the number one source of arrivals for the country’s travel industry.

Official figures reveal that China has provided 22.2 percent of all arrivals to the Indian Ocean nation this year – up 14.5 percent from last year.

“Most tourist arrivals to the Maldives are from China. More than 200,000 tourists come to the Maldives from China. Hence we must establish a close relationship with the country,” Waheed told reporters yesterday.

Asif added that there were great possibilities for Chinese investment in the Maldives’ tourism sector.

“For example, we have no Chinese hotel in the Maldives,” he said. “They are very interested in investment.”

The MNCCI  – whose remit is to promote trade and business in the Maldives – has had an office in Chengdu for two years. Chengdu, in Szechuan province, is the departure point for most Chinese visiting the Maldives, explained Asif.

In the wake of the rapid expansion in tourism links, closer ties have developed in the fields of aviation and diplomacy.

The rise of Mega Maldives Airlines has been particularly notable in recent years. The company, started in 2010, has more than doubled in size in the last year – operating charter flights between the Maldives and five Chinese destinations, as well as Hong Kong.

In April, the company conducted a travel road show in partnership with the Maldives Ministry of Tourism.

The company reported the cancellation of some flights after the political unrest in the Maldives in February. Although arrivals figures bounced back, the Maldives still remains on the Hong Kong Security Bureau’s travel alert system.

Disturbances in the capital at the time included the destruction of the National Museum’s pre-Islamic display. The Museum itself was a gift from China in 2010.

A Chinese embassy opened in Male’ in time for the opening of the SAARC summit last November, reciprocating the opening of a Maldivian mission in Beijing in 2007.

Indian officials were reported at the time as having concern that the move was part of China’s “string of pearls” policy which supposedly involves Chinese attempts at naval expansion into the Indian Ocean.

When asked by a reporter what the Maldives’ policy was regarding Sino-Indian competition in the region, President Waheed is said to have responded that the policy of a small nation like the Maldives ought to be to avoid too great an involvement in geopolitics.

Waheed’s first official state visit after becoming president saw him travel to India in May. The Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) conducted joint naval operations with India in the same month.