Trapped in the Maldives: foreign nationals stranded due to employers, state failing to resolve visa issues

A growing number of foreign nationals are finding themselves forbidden from leaving the Maldives by immigration staff, due to the failure of state and private employers to renew visa documentation.

The Indian High Commission in the Maldives told Minivan News it was now demanding government intervention after receiving complaints from expatriates claiming they have been blocked from boarding planes at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA), and stranded in the country indefinitely.

Minivan News has learned of cases where expatriates from India, the UK, the US and the Philippines have been blocked from leaving the country due to issues with visa documentation attributable to the negligence of state authorities and employers – in some cases, government ministries.

Unable to leave – and in some cases fined extortionate sums on behalf of the employer – foreigners are complaining of being trapped without funds, accommodation or legal representation.

As employers are responsible for arranging work permits on behalf of their foreign employees, foreign nationals are unable to submit or collect their own visa documentation, effectively stranding them in the Maldives at the mercy of their employers and state authorities while renewals are underway.

One UK national, seeking to ensure his own work permit was processed, even told Minivan News he was refused service at the immigration office on the grounds of “Where’s your owner?”.

An Indian High Commission source this week accused authorities of persecuting foreign nationals for the failure of the state and private employers to correctly renew or register foreign staff in the required time, depriving expatriates of their freedom of movement.

In just the past few days, the high commission said two Indian nationals had missed flights and been stranded in the Maldives while waiting for employers and government authorities to resolve the outstanding issues with their paperwork.

One of those affected, licensed pathologist at the state-run Indira Ghandi Memorial Hospital (IGMH), Dr Anjula Jain, was prevented from returning to India last week after completing her contract with the Ministry of Health.

She was forced to wait several days before receiving approval to book another flight with her own money.

Dr Jain has since filed an official complaint over her treatment with the Indian High Commission.

A High Commission source said Dr Jain had been told at immigration counter that she could not leave the country as her work visa had expired, despite the Health Ministry being in the process of renewing her documents.

Despite possessing papers showing the renewal process was ongoing, the doctor was still refused permission to leave.

Dr Jain was then asked to obtain a letter from the Health Ministry confirming the renewal of her documents was underway, before finally obtaining clearance from the Department of Immigration to leave the country days later.

The High Commission source said it was extremely concerned that Maldives employers, especially state authorities such as the Health Ministry, were continuing to employ foreign nationals even after their visas had expired, resulting in serious difficulties for the workers.

“There is a serious problem here for expatriates working for private and government companies where a visa is not renewed in time, with some people even having their bank accounts frozen and being deprived of their rights,” the source said.

“One call is too many,” the source said. “Concerns have been raised with [State Foreign Minister] Hassan Saeed as some similar cases have been brought to our attention. [The commission] will be checking with authorities that a systematic resolution can be found by the government to resolve this issue.”

Trapped in Male

Several foreign staff of varying nationalities working in areas ranging from tourism to the NGO sector have told Minivan News they are effectively barred from leaving due to problems with paperwork they are unable to resolve without the assistance of ambivalent employers and immigration staff.

One US national working in the NGO sector told Minivan News that she remains blocked from leaving the country due to a delay in obtaining a visa stamp in her passport, after discovering at the immigration counter that a previous employer had failed to pay outstanding visa charges.

Speaking to Minivan News on condition of anonymity, the woman said that during a recent attempt to fly to Sri Lanka for a medical reasons, immigration staff  had summoned an airline official, who had ripped up her ticket in front of her.

“I spent a year working for my former employer. It took six months of demanding my passport be returned to me before it was, however I was constantly reassured all my documentation was in order and there were just processing delays. So I was very surprised to discover they had failed to pay the appropriate work visa fees,” she said.

“This has not only caused problems for my current employer, it has put me in a very vulnerable position as an expatriate worker. I’ve been prevented from leaving the country – urgently for health reasons – by the Immigration Department because of these unpaid fees resulting in my documentation not being properly updated.”

The US national said she was now effectively at the mercy of previous employers to resolve the outstanding payments, as she was unable to afford the the MVR 15,000 (US$1000) in fines demanded by immigration authorities to allow her to leave the country.

“Despite being in constant contact with my former employer about these issues, and some of the members showing genuine concern, they have still failed to resolve the issue nearly seven months later. Instead they blame me for these issues, when it’s clearly their own professional incompetence. It’s a foul betrayal to have dedicated so much time and energy, as well as made numerous personal sacrifices, in order to partner with this organisation to achieve their mission, merely to be blatantly disrespected as a professional and individual,” she said.

“Foreign workers in the Maldives – of any nationality – are treated like slaves, or indentured servants at best.  As a professional woman, it’s worse because you have to navigate the sexism and endure a lot of harassment – which would never be allowed if this was a country that respected its foreign employees.”

By contrast, the US national believed the only method to have visa documentation approved in a quick manner was to go through recruitment ‘agents’, alleging that corruption seemed to be endemic within the system, despite tight restrictions imposed on foreign professionals.

“The most ridiculous part of the situation is that in addition to my former employer’s incompetence, the department of immigration has been in a state of flux since Feb 2012, but this is not taken into consideration by the government. They don’t care. Illegal foreign workers are brought into the country and exploited in droves, but immigration punishes legitimate workers claiming they know what they are supposed to do,” she argued.

Employees must take responsibility: Immigration

The Department of Immigration confirmed it was aware that foreign nationals had been prevented from leaving due to their employers not having obtained visas correctly.

However, the immigration authority argued that the Maldives, like countries all over the world, required foreign nationals to have the correct visa documentation to enter or leave the country, even to their homeland.

Immigration Department spokesperson Ibrahim Ashraf said all expatriates would be aware that, in order to stay in a foreign country, it was mandatory to have the correct and valid visa.

Ashraf said that there had been a “huge backlog” of visas that were required to be processed by employers such as the health and education ministries, claiming that immigration authorities had made special arrangements to fast track visa renewals.

“This should not be happening,” he said of expatriates being prevented from boarding flights out of the country.

Ashraf claimed the Immigration Department had not been made aware of any concerns raised by the Indian High Commission over the issue of stranded workers, suggesting some issues may have been related to a “huge misunderstanding” of the visa system by employers.

“Payments for visas have to be made to the Maldives Inland Revenue Authority (MIRA), with passports then officially needing to be processed with the Department of Immigration once payment is complete,” he said. “The visa sticker has to be there in the passport.”

Ashraf stressed that a correct visa sticker was requested by airlines as well as foreign authorities to allow a foreign national to board any international flight.

Health Ministry backlog

Responding to the Indian High Commission’s concerns about Dr Jain, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Health Geela Ali told Minivan News said she was unaware of the case.

However, she accepted there had been issues with foreign doctors not being able to leave the country as a result of problems relating to visa extension issues, such as the transfer of staff from health corporations established under the previous government back to the ministry.

Geela insisted there were no longer recurring problems with visa extension of expatriates working for the health ministry, despite a backlog of outstanding documentation preventing staff from leaving, and said many issues had been resolved.

“The matter is now under control, but obviously there will sometimes be employees who cannot leave over visa issues,” she said.

Geela said IGMH was responsible for its large foreign workforce, and any workers who were facing issues leaving the country.

Indian authorities meanwhile last year slammed the government and some private employers for failing to reissue visa documentation to expatriates who were forced in some cases to wait weeks in Male to return home for visits and emergencies, including one worker’s own wedding.

In January, the high commission provided local media with a list of 11 grievances affecting its relationship with the Maldives, including discrimination, the keeping of passports of Indian nationals by employers, and the failure to repatriate mortal remains of foreign workers.

The source expressed confidence that authorities would find a resolution to the various grievances raised, despite claiming that no progress had made on any of the issues raised at time of press.


Troubled paradise: Skilled expatriates falling foul of workplace challenges

In the first of a two part article, Minivan News looks at the challenges facing skilled expatriates coming to work in the Maldives and the current systems in place to prevent both employees and employers from suffering workplace malpractice.

A growing number of expatriate workers in fields ranging from education to project management have told Minivan News they are considering leaving the Maldives, and in some cases have already left the country, amidst difficulties and desperate circumstances linked to “cultural clashes” and discrimination from local employers.

Several foreigners who have worked in the Maldives have spoken to Minivan News of the more negative experiences they have had with local employers, who they allege in cases have been “suffocating”, “scary”, and even deceptive in their treatment of expatriate staff, leading them to leave their posts prematurely and in some instances flee the country.


Despite these claims, statistics from government organisations upholding the country’s employment act suggest that the number of official complaints from expatriates regarding their work situation were significantly less than the complaints received by local staff.

The Employment Tribunal told Minivan News that between 2009 and 2010, the proportion of complaints received from expatriates regarding poor or illegal treatment represented less than 10 percent of its total cases.

A tribunal spokesperson, who wished to remain anonymous, said that it had yet to receive a single case of alleged workplace discrimination facing foreign workers, although it accepted the practice undoubtedly occurred and that foreigners required greater recourse should they face illegal treatment in their work.

The Ministry of Human Resources, Youth and Sports, which has the Labour Relations Authority under its remit, said it had not been made aware of significant concerns among expatriates – particularly those from Europe and Asia Pacific – of widespread difficulties or a culture clash experienced working with local employers.

Senior government sources have in recent months outlined concerns about the treatment of huge numbers of unskilled labourers from countries like Bangladesh that are often illegally trafficked into the country, though skilled workers from abroad also appear to have issues with work practice.

While the number of expatriate staff complaints is statistically limited in comparison to the number of concerns received from local employees, foreigners who have sought career development in the Maldives have raised concerns about a pattern of experiences they fear others may face.

One Australian teacher, who spent a year at an international school in the Maldives, found that after years of working across Asia the Maldives was the most “personally challenging”.

The teacher said that while not regretting his experiences in the Maldives, there was very little information on what workers should expect and a seeming lack of interest and acceptance of the foreign experience he had been employed to provide.

“I found work in the Maldives extremely challenging from the point of view of trying to initiate and foster an ‘international education’, with huge limits being put on what could be facilitated in the classroom in terms of curriculum and content – mostly due to ‘culture clashes’,” he said.

“I found many levels, from management, staff and the local community down to students themselves, very unyielding in accommodating ‘international quality teaching and learning’.”

Although working in a very different industry, one UK expatriate – employed for several months as a project coordinator for a high-profile reclamation and construction project before opting to leave the country and her job – said she felt her position was ultimately untenable and that she had put too much faith in the word of her employer before arriving in the Maldives.

“The owner informed me that I should not compare myself to other expatriates from Europe and that expats should work weekends and holidays as they do not have a social life,” she claimed.

“My advice to anyone moving to the Maldives would be to make sure you have a contract that is legally recognised in the country, including the provision of allowances, medical insurance and a job description before you commit. Promises can turn to dust and someone’s word is not necessarily their bond.”

Another employee from the UK, bought to the country to work as a travel journalist and writer after several years working in the Middle East, claimed that she was also unprepared for office life in the Maldives. The employee said her employer led her to feel powerless from treatment she believed amounted to bullying.

“[I] began to feel I was being watched at every step at work. Despite there being one rule for Maldivian staff – keeping whatever hours they pleased, turning up in the afternoon and going to meetings through the day – they brought in a performance management system especially for me, increasing my workload and making me work six days a week,” she said.

Speaking to Minivan News, a representative for the Maldives Employment Tribunal – formed in 2008 to ensure companies were fulfilling their obligations to the country’s labour laws – said that the Maldivian Employment Act was designed to protect both local and foreign workforces equally.

However, the tribunal spokesperson added that the formation of a special union or workers’ associations to protect the interests of foreign employees would no doubt be beneficial to foreign staff, particularly those not fluent in Dhivehi or English.

“If there is a union that can represent foreigners on their behalf, or a workers’ association or something that can represent [foreign workers], then it will be easier to give them access to the tribunal,” the spokesperson said.

According to the tribunal’s figures, in 2009 a mere eight percent of complaints received regarding workplace mistreatment were from expatriate workers, despite these workers constituting a third of the country’s population. In 2010, this figure halved to four percent.

No enforcement

At present, employers in the Maldives are not bound by decisions of the tribunal even if they were found to have breached their contractual or legal obligations, the spokesperson said.

The tribunal is awaiting changes to the Employment Act that will allow edicts to be legally enforced by the country’s Civil Court. A true reflection of of the number of disgruntled foreign employees was likely to follow, the spokesperson said.

“The tribunal itself and the Employment Act is silent on enforcement, so if we issue a verdict and no one enforces it, there is nothing we can do on this,” the spokesperson said.

“Maybe this is why people do not want to go through the hassle of [the tribunal]. If the decision is not implemented, what do they get at the end of the day? We have proposed the Employment Ministry amend the act so that enforcement power could be given to the Civil Court. But these amendments are still going on.”

Local considerations

The tribunal spokesperson said that there was little difference in the standard and type of complaints coming from either local or foreign employees, with few cases concerning discrimination.

“We normally get complaints about unpaid wages and unfair dismissal so it’s sort of the same. It’s basically unfair dismissal and unpaid wage that we receive, even from locals. We get very few cases of discrimination,” the spokesperson claimed.

The tribunal had not dealt with cases such as forced labour or discriminatory behavior from employers, she said, “although this does not mean it is not taking place fairly openly.”

“I think it is all happening in the country, even if we do not receive such cases. Anybody who in this society knows it is happening in the country,” the spokesperson added, emphasising that employment laws were nonetheless designed to treat local and foreign workers equally regardless of their nationality.

Foreign workers in their own words

Three expatriate employees who have all moved on from their posts recount their experiences of working in the country. The names of the individuals have been changed to protect their identities.

Michael, 28, Australian teacher

“I found working in the Maldives to be a thoroughly challenging, but rewarding experience. Unlike other regions of the world, which provide you with a plethora of websites, books and other resources to enhance your knowledge of what the country will be like to live and work in, there was little to go on before leaving – apart from the Lonely Planet guide (which is more of a resort guide than a window into the inner workings of the country itself).

So going there I had little idea of what living and working in the Maldives would be like. Early challenges included the ‘norm’ for ex-pat life abroad – finding suitable accommodation, getting acquainted with new work conditions and new colleagues, finding friends and generally finding your feet in a new place. I lived in Hulhumale’, which is a swift ferry ride away from the capital city of Male’ – this provided the quiet I desired, but I was close enough to experience Male’ when I had to or wanted to.

I was employed as an English teacher at an international school, which is my profession in my home country. I found work in the Maldives extremely challenging from the point of view of trying to initiate and foster an “international education”, with huge limits being put on what could be facilitated in the classroom in terms of curriculum and content – mostly due to ‘culture clashes’.

I found many levels, from management, students themselves, staff, down to the local community, very unyielding in accommodating “international quality teaching and learning”. To me this is what an international school should provide – opportunities for students to develop holistically and develop critical thinking skills, with an empathy and understanding for different cultures and lifestyles.

The culture of the Maldives and its unwillingness to broaden its horizons and be open to outside influences made school life extremely challenging, not to mention the management of the school ( European in origin) not being open to “local interests and desires” for a child’s education.

The Maldives can also be quite a ‘suffocating’ place, especially for foreign women – Maldivian males are quite primitive in some of their behaviour and I have both witnessed and heard of gross misconduct and harassment on many levels towards Western women. As a male, the country is without doubt an easier beast to handle, but foreign women definitely have cause for concern when dealing with locals at times.

On the whole, once settling into a vastly different style of ex-pat life that I had been used to, I really enjoyed living and working in the Maldives. It is quite a shock to begin with, with rigid cultural and religious elements, quite foreign to many western day-to-day lives, having to be adhered to.

Outside of work there is plenty to do if you have a thirst for everything outdoors. I wouldn’t trade my year there for anything, I met some wonderful people – both local and international, and would recommend people give the Maldives a go.”

Natalie, 47, British project coordinator

“Recruited by a Sri Lankan businessman in the UK to work as a project coordinator in the Maldives, I was very excited about finding what seemed to be an excellent opportunity for my career development, working on a reclamation and construction project.

Having thoroughly researched the UK company, I accepted the job offer to work for the newly established Maldivian company, set up specifically for the project. With what I understood to be tight project timescales, I relocated within a month having the draft of a skeleton contract in email, trusting the owner of the business that the company and its employees were like a family; we could finalise the details of the contract at a later date.

Once there the owner informed me that I should not compare myself to other expatriates from Europe and that expats should work weekends and holidays as they do not have a social life. My advice to anyone moving to the Maldives would be to make sure you have a contract that is legally recognised in the Maldives, including allowances, medical insurance and a job description before you commit. Promises can turn to dust and someone’s word is not necessarily their bond.

Life in the capital of Male’ for a woman is not an easy one. Despite respecting the culture and religious beliefs, wearing suitable clothing and behaving appropriately, the Maldivian men do touch and grab women inappropriately.

There is a great deal of resentment from some Maldivians towards expats and contractors from Europe and the Americas. Fortunately though, some recognise the potential for change to achieve future growth and prosperity in a greener and more international culture.

My experience is something I do not regret. I had the pleasure of meeting His Excellency the President on more than one occasion and was fortunate to make good friends and business associates. Lessons have been learned: such is life.”

Dana, 30, UK journalist

“I have lived and worked on respected publications in the Middle East, I was used to cultural differences and striking harmony between the two ways of working. I believed I was well prepared for the challenges of working in a society with similar beliefs to the Maldives, but nothing prepared me for the challenges that lay ahead.

I was at first pleasantly surprised with the apartment where I would be living. It was a three-bedroom flat with all mod-cons. Upon arriving, the publisher asked me which room I wanted to take and then proceeded to lock the other rooms, he retained a key for the flat and left.

The next morning, for my first day at work I had a rude awakening. The office boy who had collected my luggage was standing above me saying “madam, madam wake up!” Frightened out of my mind, I screamed at him to get out of my room. It was a strange and scary start to the day.

Any newsroom is supposed to be buzzing with reporters going in and out the office and colleagues coming in and out. Instead the publisher wanted it to be like a factory, rehashing press releases. He even had the general manager prepare us job descriptions, though it was clear that he hadn’t the first clue about journalism and was contending with staff with more than five decades of media experience between them.

Increasingly I also began to feel I was being watched at every step at work. Despite there being one rule for Maldivian staff, keeping whatever hours they pleased, turning up in the afternoon and going to meetings through the day, they brought in a performance management system for me, increasing my workload and making me work six days a week.

The office itself was dangerous and there were no health and safety regulations. The unlit entrance to the office had live cables swinging above the off the stairs and water on the bathroom floor. A campaign to bring it up to safe standards fell on deaf ears.

The general manager took me aside and tried to blacken the names of my colleagues, telling me they were not acting professionally in his eyes, but that he liked them and would give them more chances to improve.

Why was he telling me this I thought? I didn’t want to get involved, being such a newbie. Then he tried insinuate if I played by the rules I would do well. I didn’t like his tone or his allusions. It was as if he was trying to see what side I was on and divide and conquer. Baffled, I said that my colleagues had showed me nothing but kindness and respect and I didn’t want to be part of anything he was insinuating. I felt really uncomfortable with all of this.

I told my colleagues about his strange behaviour and bribes. They said they were not surprised. At various times he had tried the tactic with them all.

This alarmed me. Understandably at this point I was scared because I did not know what I had got in to. I only took the job because I thought this was an opportunity to further develop myself after my Middle East experience. I didn’t have the resources to move on.

Strangely, there was another power struggle going on between the publisher and the GM, who used to turn up late in the afternoon. Overall their attitude was arrogant and disdainful towards us and they showed no recognition for how hard the staff had been working to make their product
a success. Morale was so low in the office and all the energy and enthusiasm I had brought with me was being sapped. I felt I had served a lifetime, though barely a week had gone by.

There was a clocking in machine and we were required to clock in between 9am and 5pm and soon our interviews were being classed as time out by the publisher and his minion. I couldn’t believe their method of thinking!

We had contacts begging us to go out and visit them, yet we were ‘trapped inside the office.’ We tried everything to convince the publisher in the value of letting us out of the office. Yet he turned it into a punishment, banning press trips from the second week.

The day after Halloween, I received a phone call from my colleague who said she had just been fired. I was running late into the office from a meeting, so I couldn’t quite process it, she said that she had not been given any reason for the dismissal. My editor and the other reporter were in the office when I arrived and you could cut the atmosphere with a knife. It was such an awful morning. My macabre mood suited the topic of my writings that day a feature about ghouls and jinnis of the Maldives for a Halloween special.

We met outside for lunch and one of the reporters revealed that he was tendering his resignation on principle. The editor said he was looking for other jobs abroad but he would need to stay in this job for as long as possible. I felt for them and for the nightmare struggle they must have had so far. I felt suicidal after a few weeks, how about these poor souls?

I began to feel increasingly fearful as I did not want lose my job and have to go home. Not after all the struggle to get here. All those hours spent working in three menial jobs back to back, and taking on limited freelance contracts over the summer just to manage the airfare to the Maldives. I had no option, I was trapped, without enough money to go forward or back.

A few days later all hell broke loose. First the reporter who had tendered his resignation was called in and told that he was going to be dismissed that day, even though he was owed 30 days notice.

Then the editor was called in – luckily he had also just written his notice and handed it in before he could have the satisfaction of dismissing him. Two bully security guards were called in to almost forcibly remove them. I was so upset and shocked by the whole events which were unfolding. It was all going too fast – I couldn’t compute.

My state of mind was in tatters at this point imagining the worst, wrestling with my conscience, my pride and my dignity. My home was part of the work package so could not leave the company and try to find another job.

I didn’t have a choice. At this stage still hadn’t even been paid. I was also running out of cash and there was no one to help back home.

So I stayed… but at this point I still hadn’t even received my visa, and was required to leave the country and go to Sri Lanka. Still with no money, I asked the publisher to pay my expenses, but he said he would only pay for the airfare. I asked for an allowance to spend but he refused. Instead he turned out his moth-eaten wallet with £5 GBP and 15 rupees he said I could exchange.

In the meantime my colleagues had an awful time of it having to shift from place to place, but with the help of friends they got by and began setting up their own plans for the future. I tried to support them where I could.

Then I was called into the office and the publisher said he had been told that someone was else living in the flat and there were people visiting me. So what? I felt violated and angry as he had just admitted he been watching my flat. He said that he needed to give permission for anyone to stay. Another control mechanism.

The wheels were already in motion for my own removal. My visa was still in the process of being arranged and they had my passport. Less than 10 days later my fears were realised. I was called into the office and told that they would no longer continue with my employment and when I asked about my passport I was told I had to go to the immigration building to collect it.

I called one of my friends who had contact with immigration and I was told to come down to the office, they had my passport and tickets for me to fly out with Qatar within two days. I filed a case
with the employment tribunal and got my passport back.

The employment tribunal was a long and arduous process and in the end they ruled against me, as I hadn’t worked there long enough so I could not receive any compensation for the trauma of the last few months. Despite a ruling by the court to issue a one way ticket to the country of my choosing, I still have to receive that ticket from the employer. Along the way he pulled all sorts of nasty tricks including putting holds on empty tickets so that he would look good in court, and gazumping me when I went to buy a ticket at the same travel agent.

Overall, I felt an overwhelming feeling of freedom. I want to help people from making the same mistakes as me.”