Maldives customs workers suspend strike, give management one week to meet demands

Maldives’ Customs Service workers initiated strike actions on Thursday morning and have threatened a full work stoppage if senior management does not meet their demands by the end of next week.

At 8:30am approximately 90 customs officers began protesting in the main customs building in Male’. They met with Deputy Commissioner General of Customs Mohamed Kamal and other senior management at 10:30am to discuss customs workers’ grievances, communicate their demands, and provide a petition signed by over 250 workers.

As of 11:00am the strikers agreed to give management one week to fulfill their demands and “give a solid answer”, otherwise the strike will restart Thursday.

“From the olden days there has been favoritism and the same thing is still practiced now. We will protest, we won’t stop. These problems should be solved if senior management wants us to be calm,” one of the strike organisers told Minivan News today.

“We decided [to strike] for our children’s future, for their sake we thought we should come out and express ourselves,” the source said. “This is the first time ever customs workers have participated in any strike.”

“We are not fighting for our own individual rights, but for the [customs] staffs’ rights,” the source noted.

Customs workers are aggrieved about senior staff engaging in discriminatory, nepotistic practices, that have led to inequitable promotions, retirement packages, and training opportunities, multiple customs workers told Minivan News today.

“Inequality is very high within customs, people won’t tolerate this,” a source lamented. The source also noted that gender discrimination is a factor impacting women within the government agency.

While “favoritism has been a problem from the beginning”, customs officials noted that these problems have been exacerbated since individuals with education and experience have been overlooked and mistreated by senior staff. “Promotions have not been based on qualifications, these things shouldn’t be happening,” said a customs official.

“On August 15, 2013 senior management met at 12:00am and developed a promotions list in secret. That’s not legal,” the source alleged. The source noted that the promotions criteria was altered to include the subjective “competency” category, however staff were not shown their employment appraisals.

The sources alleged that the promotion grading system has not been adhered to, and instead senior staff have unfairly advanced employees.

“There have been discrepancies in promotions, for example some have received double promotions, while others have not been promoted at all due to their political affiliations,” a customs officer said.

“Promotions have not been lawfully done. The management board includes staff with relatives working under them. They can’t make decisions [regarding promotions] in that state,” said another customs official.

“Some of the senior staff have not attended [the office regularly] and amended their attendance [record], but their status in the human resources [section] says they have attended,” the source noted. “Since there are problems with their performance, how can they objectively evaluate ours?”

In addition to grievances about inequitable promotions, nepotism has led to unfair working conditions as well, a customs official explained.

“Wives and relatives of senior staff are allocated tasks and assigned to sections [within customs] where they only have to work in the morning. There are many sections that require shift duty, but they don’t get assigned shifts,” the source noted.

“Senior staff follow separate rules, they come and go as they please, don’t swipe their finger, and no one is supervising them,” the source continued.

“Recently a case happened regarding a high level shipment, but senior staff instructed us not to fine the shipment and to let it go,” the source added.

Also, employees are being transferred to different departments repeatedly and frequently without reason, according to one source who reported being shifted between three different sections over the last six months.

Another customs official highlighted inadequate working conditions, such as the lack of desks and chairs for some employees, are also problematic for some employees.

The strikers noted that after the promotions were announced in August, they communicated their grievances to the Commissioner General (CG) of Customs, the Home Minister, President Mohamed Waheed, and filed a petition with the Anti-Corruption Committee (ACC).

“The CG said he did what he wanted and no one can do anything about it, the Home Minister said he’d look into it and the President said he’d establish a separate committee to look into the matter,” according to a customs officer. “But still there has been no decision or action taken.”

Customs officers presented a list of demands that include correcting discriminatory practices as well as holding the Human Resource Board of Directors accountable for their corrupt practices.

The board consists of the CG, eight section directors, as well as the human resource section head, customs officials explained.

“The Human Resources Board thinks that this is their company, but this is a government agency,” declared a customs official.

“We are demanding a separate entity be established to deal with promotions and the previous promotions awarded [since August] be cancelled,” the source added.

Some of the customs officers who participated in this morning’s strike claim that senior management told them their protest action was illegal and threatened to fire participants.

“They can fire us, we are ready for that, but they have to fire the board first,” said a customs officer. “We don’t trust [the management] anymore.”

Senior management’s response

Meanwhile, senior customs officials are considering the workers demands but have denied threatening to fire strike participants.

“A group of staff voiced discontent with some aspects of evaluating performance and promotion criteria used, which they claim are unfair,” Deputy Commissioner General of Customs Mohamed Kamal told Minivan News today.

“Management met them and noted the issues. Possible remedial actions are being analysed,” he continued.

“Firing employees are not being considered, that’s speculation,” he added.


Police to hire 75 civil assistants as non-uniformed personnel

The Maldives Police Service (MPS) has made an announcement in the government gazette on Sunday (June 23) seeking to hire 75 “civil assistants” as non-uniformed personnel for administrative work.

A police media official explained to Minivan News today that the MPS planned to assign all administrative work to civil staff and free up “uniformed police officers for operations.”

While there were civil staff working for police at present, the media official added, uniformed personnel with police training were also carrying out administrative tasks, such as “answering the phone at police stations and writing reports.”

Shifting all administrative work to civil staff would allow uniformed personnel to attend to police work and election security matters ahead of the presidential election in September, the media official said.

According to the criteria listed in the job announcement, interested candidates must have at least two O’ Level C passes, must have passed Dhivehi and Islam, and must not have been convicted of a crime with a punishment prescribed in the Quran or theft, fraud, embezzlement, drug abuse or drug trafficking in the past five years.

In addition, applicants must not have sought treatment or rehabilitation for drug abuse during the past five years and must not be a registered member of a political party.

The deadline for submitting application forms, available on the police website and at the police headquarters, is 4:00pm on July 4.

The civil assistants will be paid monthly wages of MVR 3,470 (US$225) in addition to MVR 1,000 (US$65) a month as a service allowance and 35 percent of the salary as a non-practice allowance.

The new police staff will cost the state MVR 426,300 (US$27,645) a month and MVR 5.1 million (US$330,739) a year.

The announcement seeking 75 civil assistants followed the recruitment of new officers for a “special constabulary” reserve force in May this year.

Reserve force officers were to be paid 85 percent of the salary of a regular police officer of the same rank.

Budget crisis

Following the controversial transfer of presidential power on February 7, 2012 in the wake of a violent mutiny instigated by officers of the Special Operations (SO) command, more than 1000 police officers were promoted110 new police officers were hired, a housing scheme was introduced for police officers with 300 flats to be constructed in Hulhumale’, arrangements were made for cheap accommodation in Sri Lanka for police officers and their families and a loan scheme was set up for police officers.

The additional recurrent expenditure on wages for new police staff comes at a time when the country is facing a budget crisis, with island schools and hospitals understaffed, local councils unable to settle outstanding utility bills, and development projects stalled over lack of funds.

In April, Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad sought authorisation from parliament to divert MVR 650 million (US$42 million) allocated for infrastructure projects in the budget to cover recurrent expenditure.

Jihad warned that government offices and independent institutions might be unable to pay salaries or electricity and phone bills if funds were not transferred from the MVR 1.8 billion (US$117 million) Public Sector Investment Programme (PSIP).

Earlier in April, the cabinet decided to delay implementation of new development projects financed out of the state budget due to shortfalls in revenue.

Moreover, in a report on the Maldivian justice system released in May, UN Special Rapporteur for the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Gabriela Knaul, expressed concern of an impending budget crisis for the judiciary.

“The immediate implications of the budget cuts on the judiciary are appalling. For instance, the Department of Judicial Administration only has funds to pay staff salaries until November 2013 and it had to cancel training this year,” Knaul noted.

“The Civil Court reported that it would not have sufficient funds to pay its staff salaries after October 2013; furthermore, existing budgetary resources would not be sufficient to pay for utilities and facilities after June 2013,” she added.

During the parliamentary debate last year on the state budget proposed for 2013, opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MPs criticised budgeted salary increases for military and police officers as well as plans to hire 800 new personnel for the security services.

The state’s annual wage bill was projected to skyrocket by 37 percent in 2013 as a result of hiring more employees.

MDP MP Eva Abdulla claimed during the budget debate that the police and army hired 250 and 350 new staff respectively in 2012.

Consequently, the institutions spent more than MVR 75 million (US$4.8 million) in addition to the approved budgets for 2012, she claimed.

Meanwhile, in its professional opinion on the budget submitted to parliament, the Auditor General’s Office observed that compared to 2012, the number of state employees was set to rise from 32,868 to 40,333 – resulting in MVR 1.3 billion (US$84.3 million) of additional expenditure in 2013.

This anticipated increase included 864 new staff to be hired by the security services, the Auditor General’s Office noted.


Schwack targets Maldives ad shakeup with screen service launch

Schwack Maldives plans to roll out promotional television screens detailing ferry times, current doctor duties at local hospitals, dollar exchange rates and news across the Maldives after launching the technology exclusively in Male’ this week.

According to the company, the Schwack Connections initiative was launched with 13 screens at seven restaurants and cafes around Male’, with further launches planned both within the capital and at a number of destinations like Addu Atoll.

Schwack Maldives’ Director Althaf Mohamed claimed that amidst present financial uncertainty in the Maldives,  the service was an entirely new way for business to advertise services and products in the country.

The screened information is designed to combine advertising and news with health information, trivia and even celebrity tweets and other social network updates, according to the company.