Industry seeks “grace period” for overhauling employee living conditions

Business organisations and labour rights groups have called on the government for more time to address proposed amendments to the Employment Act that will drastically shake up living standards for foreign and local workers employed within the Maldives.

The Ministry of Human Resources, Youth and Sports has today invited comments on the new proposals requiring all employers within the country to ensure that specific standards of living quarters are being provided to staff such as those living on resorts or construction sites.

The proposed amendments to the Employment Act outline new requirements for staff accommodation that include providing a clear separation of work and private space, sufficient artificial or natural light, purpose built kitchen areas and specific health and safety standards.

From the perspective of employers, Mohamed Ali Janah, President of the Maldives Association of Construction Industry (MACI), said that despite certain negative perceptions of the industry over treatment of its workers, beyond a few bad examples, there was a willingness to improve treatment of staff.

“Any improvement [to worker’s living conditions] we would welcome. Yet, with any improvements there is a cost attached to this,” he said.

Speaking to Minivan News, Janah said that he believed that the proposed amendments to workers’ living conditions would impact on the cost of construction work in the Maldives.  He said implementing such living standard changes would therefore require a grace period of around one year to allow businesses and their customers to adapt to the changes.

The MACI president claimed that in an already highly competitive marketplace,  society, rather than the construction industry alone, would have to accept some of the financial burden to offset the higher costs of accommodating workers to the standard proposed by the Human Resources Ministry.

“This will definitely have an impact on proposed costs in the industry. Right now, in what is currently a competitive market. We are just managing to get through the economic situation,” he said.

Alongside the Employment Act regulations, Janah said that he believed that additional legislation relating to occupational health and safety was needed to be addressed both in terms of private and government contracts – an issue he claimed was not always the case in negotiations for a construction project.

“The Maldives building code and health and safety requirements also need to be addressed along with these amendments,” he added.

Taking the example of what he believed were differences between the present and previous governments, the MACI president claimed that the implementation of a more structured national budget had meant that state building contracts were no longer a sure thing for building groups. These changes within the construction market were therefore seen as putting further pressure on building firms to try and cut costs while providing new residences for staff.

“[The accommodation proposals] are a good move, but there needs to be time for the industry to adapt,” Janah claimed. “There is awareness of the new requirements that needs to be created. I don’t believe penalizing companies would be the best practice and that a grace period of around a year would be a good time frame to address [the changes].”

Tourism workers

From a tourism industry perspective, worker’s organisations like the Tourism Employees Association of Maldives (TEAM) have criticised the decision to give just 15 days to provide feedback to the regulations proposed by the Human Resources Ministry.

TEAM President Ahmed Shihaam said that the association would be discussing its responses to the changes in accommodation within the next 24 hours, though had hoped the group would also have time to consult with tourism industry employers as well.

Shihaam claimed that a 15 day time-frame to respond to the regulations made it difficult to consult with important stakeholders like resort employers on the long-term implications of the proposals.

“Rather than days, we may need a month or so to address these issues properly, both with our members and the employers [the resorts themselves],” he said. “This is new to us all and the intention is not to make enemies.”

The Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI), which represents a number of resort businesses operating in the country was unavailable for comment when contacted by Minivan News at the time of going to press.

In addressing the proposals for the Employment Act, Human Resources Minister Hassan Latheef said that the proposed new accommodation standards had been adapted from recommendations outlined by the International Labour Ogranisation (ILO), specifically in terms of sanitation conditions and room size.

Latheef claimed that the proposals would address many of the complaints and concerns received by the country’s Labour Relations Authority from Maldivian Workers concerning the conditions of their accomadation, particularly at resort level.
“Maldivians, rarely complain on 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,” he 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.”

By comparison, Latheef claimed that about 95 percent of complaints received by the Labour Relations Authority from expatriate workers related to the alleged failure of an employer to pay their wages rather than living conditions.

Accommodation amendments

The proposals opened up to public consultation by the Ministry of Human Resources, Youth and Sports are scheduled to come into force four months after being published in the government gazette.

These requirements include:

  • Lodging should provide shelter from the natural elements, and be constructed using suitable materials
  • If a lodging is based at a work site, there should be a fence separating these two area at a distance of 1.5 metres
  • At entrance of lodging, a service provider’s name and contact number should be displayed along with the maximum number of people that can be accommodated
  • Lodgings should have enough daylight or artificial light as well as a means of letting air pass through
  • A single worker’s accommodation should equate to 6 square metres of living space at a height of 2.4 metres and an all round width of 1.8 metres
  • For 2 people sharing accommodation, there should 9 square metres of space that is 2.4 metres in height and 2.1 metres in width – each extra person after that should be supplied with 4.5 square metres of living space, 2.4 metres in height with a width of 2.1 metres
  • Rooms should be for separated by gender, unless workers are married
  • Lodgers should also have a means of locking away valuables
  • A toilet should be provided for every 10 people staying at a lodging
  • A sewerage system should be in place and constructed with permission from the relevant authorities
  • A kitchen should be supplied that is appropriate for the surroundings, while it’s forbidden to cook inside lodgings at construction sites
  • Employers or the service provider will be fined up to Rf5,000 for each failure of regulation that is recorded

More information on the measures can be found on the Ministry of Human Resources, Youth and Sports’ website.