When English teacher John Campbell accepted a job at Lale Youth International School two years ago, he had no idea he would be leaving the country with scarcely more than the shirt on his back and an expatriate horror story far removed from the picturesque experience of a resort worker.
At one stage in December 2010, penniless, starving, robbed, waiting for the school to pay his remaining salary and unable to get a response from any authorities, he was forced to sleep in the capital’s fish market for seven nights before being rescued by an immigration official.
At night, Campbell would sit in the doorways of shops and read by the light through the windows. Famished, he eventually resorted to begging outside Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital (IGMH).
“It was my first experience of begging,” says the Australian national, who has 10 years experience as an English teacher and a wife who currently lives in Thailand.
“I hadn’t eaten for six days, but people gave me enough for a coffee. The humiliation was better than starving, but it was not something I want to repeat.”
He was eventually found by an immigration official and taken to the immigration lock-up, where he was fed and allowed to come and go as he pleased. Later, he was moved to another building that was being refurbished –
“I don’t think it was official,” he says, praising the department worker for the help he received.
Campbell says his problems began when the Turkish-run international school failed to pay him one month’s salary on completion of his contract. He claimed that the school also required foreign staff to initially pay a US$1200 “passport deposit”.
“The school didn’t want to pay the end of my contract. I had a flight on November 16, 2010, and they made an offer of US$300 but only if I signed a statement agreeing to make no further claims against the school.”
It was common practice, Campbell said, to give departing teachers a cheque in rufiya shortly before their departure, knowing they would be unable to change the money – and then offer a significantly lower amount of dollars.
Unlike other teachers Minivan News spoke to, Campbell took the cheque, “but the bank would not change the money.”
He left the country and flew to Thailand to visit his wife, and attempted to change the cheque there. Banks were uninterested and the best “unofficial” rate he could get was Rf 40 to the dollar – more than three times the pegged rate of Rf 12.85. He changed enough to survive, and returned to the Maldives to pursue his remaining salary.
Prior to leaving he had sought to press his case with assorted authorities in Male’, particularly the Education Ministry and the Labour Department.
“Five emails to the Labour Ministry and two handwritten letters delivered personally, but they refused to acknowledge that any letters had been received,” he said. “I even tried writing letters to the President’s Office.”
Unable to penetrate the Maldives byzantine bureaucracy and without the contacts to do so, Campbell met a Maldivian man who agreed to help him in exchange for Rf 500 a week. When Campbell visited Thailand on conclusion of his contract, the man also arranged for the storage of his possessions.
When he returned to continue pressing his case, “I discovered that he had taken everything I had. My clothes, shoes, paperwork, sound system, surfboard, tools, materials, fittings – everything I owned apart from my boat.”
The small hand-made sailing vessel was Campbell’s hobby during his spare time in the Maldives, and was made from 90 percent recycled materials.
“I’ve been boat building since I was a little kid, I built the first when I was 11 years old – the first that was big enough to use. In high school, I would buy boats that had been written off and restore them to resell. Then I started making surfboards – it was good money.”
His aim was go on weekend sailing trips to local surf spots – although he adds that the real enjoyment was the relaxing focus of constructing it.
“I had finished it the day before I left [to Thailand]. I left it on the shore near the Hulhumale’ ferry terminal, after towing it up the beach and tying it up. Two weeks later, I found it a few hundred metres from the ferry terminal, smashed to pieces on the rocks and stripped of all steel fittings.”
After his possessions were stolen Campbell went to police and gave the name, home address and two telephone numbers of the man he claimed had taken everything he owned. Nothing happened – “at least 20 people told me they’ve seen him around Hulhumale’.”
“It felt like I was seen as an acceptable target. I lost everything – for the first 14 days all I had was a ticket back to Australia.”
Unwilling to give up on his possessions or the money owed him by the school, Campbell sought a refund for the ticket from the Malaysian airlines office.
That money lasted two weeks, “and then I had nowhere to sleep, no support, and nothing happening [with my case].”
Unwilling to exploit the hospitality of his hosts at a local guest house without being able to pay them back, he moved onto the streets.
“I had no money left to pay for the hotel, and while they would have let me stay I didn’t want to rack up a debt I couldn’t pay,” he said.
Lale Youth International was not responding to calls when Minivan News called to corroborate Campbell’s story, and Biz Atoll, the Maldivian company that holds the agreement to run the school in conjunction with the Turkish group, requested Minivan News to call back later and then did not answer the phone.
However, a source familiar with the school and its employment of foreign staff told Minivan News that the Campbell’s treatment was not unusual.
“In one year, the contract was changed 2-3 times. The school was supposed to pay one month’s salary after completion of one year, but it seems they were not willing to do that,” the source said.
“They did it to a Sri Lankan boy who worked there – he begged for his salary in dollars, before leaving to Sri Lanka, and they made him buy it from them at a rate of Rf 14. He paid because he had to.”
Campbell, the source attested, “was a very good teacher” – and one of the last native-English speakers to leave the school.
“There were problems in the contract that worked to the advantage of the school,” Campbell says, “such as clauses that said in the event of any contention between staff and the employer, the employer’s opinion counted. Anyone who could read English would understand the contract was untenable.”
Campbell’s sister eventually paid for his flight out of the country.
“Why not the thief’s family?” he told Minivan News, from Thailand. “It seems I’ve made a large donation to the Maldives economy. I had to make a citizens arrest of the thief because the Hulhumale’ police couldn’t find him after six weeks of looking. I had to re-seize my property by myself because they were too busy at 6:00am in the morning to accompany me. I retrieved about 25 percent of it, but not the money stolen as well. Afterwards they were very keen to get me out of the country.”
“All the difficulties were created by the school’s refusal to pay on time, and having to stay and fight them then return and fight again, with no one holding them accountable – Maldives government departments are the worst case of ‘jobs for the boys’. It cost me more than anything, and I’m left in debt after two years.”
Minivan News reported on Lale Youth International School in May last year, after the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) launched an investigation into claims children were being abused.
Later that year, the Criminal Court found the former principal, Turkish national Serkan Akar, guilty of assaulting children and sentenced him to pay a Rf200 (US$14) fine.
Serkan had denied the charges against him, which included strangling and whipping a child with a belt.
After the sentencing and the release of the HRCM report, the government briefly discussed repossessing the school from the Turkish consortium.