Employers facing investigation after 75 expatriates detained for illegally working in market

The Maldives Department of Immigration and Emigration has detained 75 illegal workers this week, and is currently investigating how many are victims of corrupt employment practices.

An immigration official, who asked not to be identified, said an unspecified number of the 75 expatriate workers detained in Male’ on Tuesday (June 4) had already been released as authorities sought to clarify the exact reasons for how they had ended up working in the capital’s market area.

Foreign nationals are not permitted under Maldives law to work at the market area, according to the Immigration Department.

Despite this, a total of 57 foreign workers were seized by authorities in April this year after having been found working at the market area of Male’.

A police media official confirmed yesterday (June 5) that officers had assisted in detaining 75 “illegal aliens” from the local market area of Male’, referring all further enquiries to the country’s immigration service, which has taken responsibility for the workers.

Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali was not responding to calls from Minivan News at time of press to confirm how many of the detained foreigners were presently expected to be sent to the department’s “processing centre” – a gated compound on the island of Hulhumale’.  Unregistered expatriates are usually kept at the centre before being sent back to their respective countries.

Immigration Department Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Abdullah Munaaz – charged with overseeing the service’s monitoring and repatriation efforts – has meanwhile said that authorities were expecting to decide within the next 48 hours how many of the 75 expatriates may face deportation. With investigations ongoing into the case, he said that no further details on the detained workers could be made public at present, with an official announcement expected in the next few days.

The Maldives has come under increasing pressure to tackle the issue of unregistered expatriates, with the country appearing on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking.  The country has appeared on the list for three years in a row.

Immigration Controller Dr Ali has previously told Minivan News that while almost all foreign workers coming to the Maldives arrive under registered companies, some were finding themselves “illegally used” by employers due to “systematic abuse” of the visa system.

Earlier this year, the Immigration Department confirmed that authorities had targeted the return of 10,000 unregistered workers by the end of the year.

This pledge to return a predetermined number of expatriates was criticised at the time by the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM), which raised concerns that some workers were being punished for the actions of employers and agents acting outside the law.

Worker release

The immigration source claimed that the country’s expatriate monitoring service was in the process of trying to individually identify whether the detained workers should be released, or deported.

The source said all those detained had not been registered to work in the market area, although some were suspected of being illegally made to do so by their legal employers.

“The paperwork is being done now to try to identify the people who are being put to work at these places by their employers,” the Immigration Department figure added. “These people are working in places where they are not registered to do so and we need to know why is this happening. Some of the employers are giving [the department] a different story to those provided by the expatriates.”

The anonymous source said that authorities would also be looking to take action against employers who may be supplying illegal labour.

The same source has claimed that the majority of the 75 detained workers were suspected of having absconded illegally from their Maldivian employer to seek better paid work elsewhere in the country.

Late last month, Immigration Department CEO Munaaz said his department had recently become aware of individuals posing as recruitment agents who were travelling to airports to poach foreign workers by promising them resort positions or higher pad jobs than the work they may have originally been brought to the country for.  Whether these jobs really exist is unknown.

“Now we have started to identify how this is being done and we are working to stop this,”Munaaz said at the time. “We know there are agents living here in Male’, some who are foreign nationals from the same countries, and they are bringing people over. We are in the process of breaking these rings.”

Foreign low-wage workers are often lured to the country by such brokers, paying a ‘recruitment’ fee or entering into debt – sometimes as high as several thousand dollars – that is shared between local agents and recruiters in the country of origin, most significantly Bangladesh.

In many cases the workers are then brought into the country ‘legitimately’ by a specially-created paper company, created using the ID of a complicit or unwitting Maldivian national, for the stated purpose of working on a ‘construction project’ of dubious existence.

Senior immigration sources have confided to Minivan News that almost no human verification was undertaken by authorities to ensure workers were genuinely employed once a business or construction project was approved.

Moreover, despite the size and scale of the practice, not a single recruitment agent or labour trafficker has appeared before a Maldivian court.

Human trafficking

While the government earlier this year launched a special campaign intended to raising awareness of the rights of foreign workers, NGOs and institutions continue to identify human trafficking as a significant issue needing to be addressed in the country.

Human rights groups in the Maldives have for instance continued to criticise the present and former governments for failing to pass legislation that would allow authorities to press charges against individuals directly for the offence of human trafficking.  The legal measures to do so are presently under review in parliament.

In February, former President Maldives Association of Construction Industry (MACI) Mohamed Ali Janah claimed that 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.


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.


Construction chief calls on government to impose occupational safety act

The relatively small number of building site deaths recorded in the Maldives in recent years is more the result of “good fortune” rather than industry commitments to safety, the head of one of the country’s most prominent construction industry bodies has warned this week.

Mohamed Ali Janah, President of the Maldives Association of Construction Industry (MACI), told Minivan News that he believed a lack of national regulations outlining health and safety obligations at the nation’s building sites was a major point of concern needing to be addressed. He added that despite there being “not many deaths” attributed to the Maldives construction industry, laws still needed to be passed to ensure the safety of staff.

According to Janah, when assessing the standards of occupational health and safety on the country’s construction sites there were very few places in the world that “would accept the way work is conducted here in the Maldives”.

The comments were made after the Maldives Police Service police confirmed Tuesday (June 19) that a Bangladesh national working in the capital had died from injuries sustained during a fall from the sixth floor of a building site.

Police Spokesperson Sub-Inspector Hassan Haneef said that the construction company operating the site has said that “all safety measures” has been enforced at the time of the incident. However, after police interviewed the deceased’s co-workers, Haneef said it had been alleged that no such safety measures were adopted at the site.

When questioned by Minivan News about what actions the police may look to take in relation to the incident, the police spokesperson said he could not comment further on the case while investigations were ongoing.


While the Centre for Community Health and Diseases Control (CCHDC) is presently said to be working on drafting regulations that would impose safety standards on the industry, authorities have told Minivan News that there is presently no legal framework compelling construction workers to adopt occupational health measures.

According to MACI head Janah, this lack of regulation – as well as strong pressure for cost-cutting within the construction industry – were proving to be major setbacks in ensuring industry-wide improvements in health and safety.

“The issue of occupational health and safety has been a problem for years now. There are presently no laws encouraging construction companies to adopt safety standards in the workplace,” he said. “Clients are also not setting aside money to ensure health and safety measures are being met. People just don’t understand the importance of it in the workplace.”

Janah claimed that there were already a number of construction companies within the country acting in a responsible manner when it comes to ensuring employee safety. Yet despite the efforts of such companies to hold daily safety drills and other on-site programmes, he added that the industry’s work was being tarnished by other construction groups that were failing to meet their obligations.

“The majority of small and medium sized [construction] companies are not being paid or compensated to ensure employee safety, which makes it very difficult for them to adapt,” he added.

Janah said that MACI set out official guidelines late last year to try and ensure the organisation’s members were prioritising employee safety.  However, he conceded that these guidelines were not a substitute for regulation, calling on the government to press ahead with passing legislation on mandatory safety obligations for construction workers.

Janah said he was “very sad” at the death of the construction worker who fell to his death this week in Male’ and pointed out that it was “not the first time” a construction employee had been injured or killed working on a building site in the capital.

“The employee was not believed to be wearing any safety gear when he died. This is shocking. Fortunately there have not been many deaths in construction here,” he said. “We will only see health and safety measures being adopted though when companies are willing to pay for it. However, if there is regulation, then there are also safety standards that companies will be forced to adhere to.”

When contacted today about the potential nature of safety regulations for the construction industry, the Ministry of Human Resources Youth and Sport forwarded Minivan News to the country’s Labour Relations Authority (LRA).

The LRA’s Assistant Director, Aishath Nafa Ahmed said it had already been looking to establish a regulation that would outline occupational health requirements at construction sites in future. According to Ahmed, the LRA was presently powerless to take action against an employer found to be operating unsafe sites under existing regulation.

“We can at present go to a site and inform employers about safety, but we do not have powers to act on possible concerns,” she said. “Last year, we ourselves started on a draft regulation as well within the ministry. But I do not know whether this got completed or not.”

Ahmed added that from her understanding, the country’s CCHDC had also been working to outline an act on worker safety that was designed to try and cut down on incidents such as the construction site death seen this week.

“They did send us an outline in April about [worker safety],” she said.

High commission concerns

Among those to have expressed concern this week at the work-site death of a foreign national and wider issues of occupational safety on the country’s construction sites, the High Commission of Bangladesh in Male’ said it had “raised concerns on a regular basis” over the safety of occupational health in the country for its nationals.

High Commissioner Rear Admiral Abu Saeed Mohamed Abdul Awal said that he had been in touch with representatives in the country over trying to “ensure” that sufficient safety measures were being afforded to workers in the country.

“We have been interacting with officials at various levels here about this issue. It is an ongoing process,” he added.

“Bad employers”

Last month, Commissioner Awal said he believed workers from Bangladesh were regularly being brought to the Maldives to perform unskilled work, usually in the construction industry, alleging that upon arriving, expatriates from Bangladesh were suffering from the practices of ”bad employers”.

“This is a real problem that is happening here, there have been many raids over the last year on unskilled [expatriate] workers who are suffering because of the companies employing them. They are not being given proper salaries and are paying the price for some of these employers,” he said.

Rear Admiral Awar added that it was the responsibility of employers to ensure expatriate staff had the proper documentation, suitable living standards and safe working environments.

Concerns about the treatment of expatriates from across the South Asia region were also shared by Indian High Commissioner Dynaneshwar Mulay. Speaking to Minivan News in April, Mulay raised concerns over the general treatment of Indian expatriates in the Maldives, particularly by the country’s police and judiciary.

Mulay claimed that alongside concerns about the treatment of some Indian expatriates in relation to the law, there were significant issues relating to “basic human rights” that needed to be addressed concerning expatriates from countries including Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Big business

Beyond concerns about the basic human rights of foreign employees in the country, labour trafficking is also believed to represent a significant national economic issue.

An ongoing police investigation into labour trafficking in the Maldives last year uncovered an industry worth an estimated US$123 million, eclipsing fishing (US$46 million in 2007) as the second greatest contributor of foreign currency to the Maldivian economy after tourism.

The authorities’ findings echo concerns first raised by former Bangladeshi High Commissioner Dr Selina Muhsin, reported by Minivan News in August 2010. The comments by Mushin were made shortly after the country was placed on the US State Department’s Tier 2 watchlist for human trafficking.


MACI Build Expo positive about construction “boom”

The Maldives Association of Construction Industry’s (MACI) annual exhibition concluded today at the Dharubaaruge Centre in Male’, after enduring three days of gloomy weather and a lower-than-expected turnout.

The annual event showcased over twenty construction companies and their newly developed or imported products. Sales people interviewed said that the event was a significant business opportunity each year, and that sales were expected to improve.

“Every year we are introducing new products,” said Ali Shaathir of MUNI Homecare. “These products have a good impact on construction–they are safer, and friendly to the environment.”

Veligaa Hardware representative Muaz Mohamed said that construction would continue to “boom” in the Maldives. “You can always see construction on Male, and Hulumale is just beginning to boom,” he said.

Other companies represented included Humaru Maldives, Polytechnic Maldives, Thilafalhu Industrial Zone, and Habitat. Several observed that resort construction played a significant role in the industry.

One construction sector said to interest resorts is renewable energy. Earlier this week, President Mohamed Nasheed told an international audience in London that the Maldives needs to become carbon neutral.

Renewable Energy Maldives (REM) representative Maufooz Abdullah said that although eco-construction isn’t prominent, it is growing. “People are actually interested here and in resorts, and some are even buying our products,” he said.

REM currently sells solar-hybrid air conditioning units to residents and businesses around the country. These units recover their cost in two years, and are said to be used across Male. Abdullah said that use of REM products could reduce pollution “by 30 to 60 percent”.

“We hope environmentally friendly construction practices grow in the Maldives, it’s catching on slowly but we hope it moves faster.”

Abdullah said the MACI exhibition was valuable to the industry, but wished more people would benefit from it.

“I think it’s a very important event for educating people about the industry, but I don’t see too many people coming in.”

Maldives Income Revenue Authority (MIRA) said that construction was important to the Maldivian economy. Representatives noted, however, that the new Goods and Services Tax (GST) bill, due to become active on 2 October, will “have an effect on wholesale and customer prices.”