Police arrest four including PPM council member for attacking ferry captain

Police have arrested four men including a Council Member of the Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), Maaz Saleem, over the alleged assault of an airport ferry captain.

According to a police account of the incident in local media, Saleem allegedly instructed the group to attack the ferry captain after accusing him of stealing a bag containing an iPad.

“We have received information that Saleem accused the captain of stealing the bag. He then got off the ferry and returned with a group and assaulted the captain,” a police spokesperson told newspaper Haveeru.

Police eventually took Saleem and his three companions into custody, as well as the injured ferry captain.

PPM MP Ahmed Nihan said the reported arrest of Saleem was a personal matter and was not anything to do with the party.

He said that he had been informed of the arrest at about 12:25am by a party supporter that “something went wrong” outside at the jetty near the Nasandhura Palace Hotel involving a computer or tablet device, but had no further details at time of press.

Nihan added that Saleem had not been directly involved with PPM campaigning since the party’s primary election earlier this year, that saw MP Abdulla Yameen elected as its presidential candidate.


Island Aviation Service MD sacked

Island Aviation Services (IAS) today sacked its Managing Director Bandhu Ibrahim Saleem, allegedly by text message.

According to Haveeru, however, Saleem will remain at the company’s board.

IAS Commercial Director Ahmed Zuhair has been assigned as the acting head of the company, Haveeru reports.

IAS this year was scheduled to receive Kaadehdhoo airport in Gaaf Dhaal Atoll for development. However the hand-over was not carried out.

IAS offices and the ministries of Finance and Economic Development had not responded to phone calls at time of press.


PPM to protest for ‘protection’ of judiciary

Weeks after the  ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) said it would protest over the political compromising of judicial independence by members of the former government, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) has said it protest “to protect” the judiciary.

PPM Council member Ahmed Saleem today told Minivan News that the PPM’s decision came following attempts made by the current government “to influence the judiciary.”

”The government recently has clearly said that they will not allow any trial to be conducted if it is not going the way they want,” Saleem alleged. ”There are many persons who have been sued in the current government and they do not want their cases to be trialed, that is the reason why they are trying to influence the judiciary.”

Saleem said PPM had decided “to be on standby” to come out and protest, although the party had not decided any on specific time or date.

”A case concerning a Criminal Court Judge is currently in the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) and the government is attempting to influence it as well,” he claimed. ”We will not let it happen.”

Recently the JSC completed its investigation into the alleged misconduct of Chief Criminal Court Judge Abdulla Mohamed.

The case against Abdulla Mohamed was presented to the JSC in January 2010 by former President’s member of the JSC, Aishath Velezinee, after Abdulla Mohamed appeared on private TV station DhiTV and expressed “biased political views”.

In 2005, then Attorney General Dr Hassan Saeed forwarded to the President’s Office concerns about the conduct of Abdulla Mohamed after he requested that an underage victim of sexual abuse reenact her abuse for the court.

In 2009 following the election of the current government, those documents were sent to the JSC.

Last week MDP Chairperson and MP ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik and other senior officials including former President of the party Ibrahim Ismail ‘Ibra’ held a press conference where Moosa said that no rulings made by Abdulla Mohamed should be implemented.

Speaking during the press conference, Ibra said that there were many cases pending in the JSC against Abdulla Mohamed, and that this was the first such case to be concluded.


So long and thanks for all the fish: the decline of the Maldivian fishing industry

The viability of the Maldivian tuna fishing industry is being threatened by the mass harvesting of fish stocks by foreign fishing vessels just outside the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Minivan News has learned.

Fishing is the Maldives’ second largest industry after tourism, and the country’s largest employer. The sustainability of centuries-old ‘pole and line’ fishing methods is not only considered a source of national pride, but also attracts buyers from premium supermarkets in the UK and Europe.

“We have noticed a decline in skipjack tuna due to the operation of purse seniers, mainly French and Spanish, along our EEZ,” Fisheries Minister Dr Ibrahim Didi tells Minivan News. “We have heard they are using FADS (Fish Aggregation Devices) across a very big area.”

Purse seining is a fishing method whereby a vessel deploys an enormous net to encircle and capture entire schools of fish at once. The method is very cost effective but indiscriminate, and generates a large amount of bycatch.

It is particularly efficient used in conjunction with FADs. Fish such as tuna are naturally attracted to the floating object, such as a buoy, typically fitted with a sonar device capable of determining the quantity of fish below, and a satellite uplink that communicates this to the nearby fishing vessel. The vessel’s net does not discriminate between the predators and scavengers attracted by the target fish population around the FAD.

“Nothing escapes,” says Solah Mohamed, Head of Production for the Maldives’ Felivaru fish cannery, which was opened in 1982 in collaboration with a Japanese company.

“Just outside the Maldivian EEZ are thousands of FADS, with sonar and live tracking systems. There are so many deployed that the natural migration of the skipjack is changing,” he says. “Fish that are supposed to migrate into Maldivian waters are being stopped because so many FADS are deployed.”

Solah claims the FADs are deployed by purse seines belonging “mainly to Spain, France and Japan, and also Iran.”

The Maldivian fishing fleet is simply unable to compete due to its reliance on pole and line fishing methods, says Solah, “one of the most sustainable methods of fishing.”

“The issue is that purse seines have become so efficient – and their sizes are becoming huge – as large as 100-400 tons. They say the sonar detects dolphins, but I don’t think it sounds very effective. Sharks, dolphins, turtles – they take everything. I doubt they can be bothered to sort it all out before pulling it on board.”

The under-resourced Maldivian coastguard is unable to monitor the vastness of the Maldivian EEZ, and local fishermen rarely go beyond the 100 nautical miles (the EEZ is 200 miles).

However the issue is not one of legality or of policing capacity. Many vessels at least in the EU fleet are fitted with vessel tracking devices ensuring they do not stray into Maldivian waters. But in international waters, almost anything goes – and seeking to hold foreign countries to account for over-exploitation is near impossible.

“We may as well be under siege,” a senior government source told Minivan News, of the ring of vessels surrounding the country.

Officially, the government is more diplomatic. “This is happening on the high seas and not in our EEZ, so there is very little we can do to raise our concerns,” says Fisheries Minister Dr Ibrahim Didi.

“Purse seiners are operating without limitation in the Indian Ocean near our EEZ, and the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) has not taken any measures against it.

“Since we became a full member of the IOTC we have tried to raise the issue and talk with neighbouring countries to take a joint stand. But the IOTC is dominated by European countries.”

Solah from Felivaru has observed the same problem: “We are just becoming a full member, but Japan, Spain and France are big players in the Commission. I have been to one of their conferences and I feel that their voices are heard more than those of the coastal islands. They have more expertise and they can put forward more resolutions, more numbers – we simply don’t have the expertise to beat them.”

A fish aggregation device, or FAD

Last gasps of the tuna catch

Meanwhile, the pole and line catch in the Maldives is in decline.

Felivaru’s Deputy General Manager Mohamed Waheed observes that the Maldivian tuna catch has fallen from “very high” figures in 2005-2006 “to now less than it was in 1995-1996.”

“The main thing is that the pattern of fishing changed. May to August is the low season, but we can usually still catch fish in the southern waters of the country. But this season it did not happen – we had hardly any fish in the north, and very little in the south.”

The foreign purse seines have not reported a declining catch, notes Solah.

“In commercial fishing we talk about ‘catch’ and ‘effort’,” he explains. “The Maldivian catch is going down but according to the IOTC, the purse seine catch is stable. This means the purse seines have hugely increased their effort.”

Value-adding means employment

Felivaru buys fish from local fishermen, canning, labelling and adding value to the commodity prior to export. The company has high demand for its product from upmarket UK supermarkets such as Waitrose, but has been forced to scale down its production lines because it just cannot buy enough fish.

“We are now processing 15 tonnes per day. We can go up to 50 tonnes if we can get the fish – but our cannery has had to scale down because we don’t get enough,” says Solah.

That has impacted employment: “At the beginning of 2008 we employed 1100 employees,” says Waheed. “Four years later we’re down to half that – 550 workers. And all these people are going to lose their jobs when the fisheries collapse.”

“Maybe tourism brings the most money to the country, but fisheries still provides most of the jobs. It accounts for more than half the employment of the entire country,” he explains.

A question of economics

Former head of the Maldives Industrial Fisheries Company (MIFCO), Adhil Saleem, now the country’s Transport Minister, attributes the decline in local fisheries to the industry’s struggle to meet global pressures and remain competitive.

He espouses a pragmatic, free market view. Marketing the Maldives’ pole and line fishing as a premium ‘eco’ brand pleases environmentalists and looks fine on paper, he explains, “But our gains in the market are eaten up by the supermarkets, because they are the only outlets marketing the product. ‘Maldivian fishermen saving the world’ does not fetch a premium, because as much as they talk about it, the world is not prepared to pay for eco-friendly fishing.”

Saleem contends that small rises in ocean surface temperatures due to climate change are driving fish deeper, further reducing the stocks within reach of the traditional pole and line method.

“Our method only works near the surface,” he says. “But with changes in weather and sea temperature, fish will not surface.”

“At the same time, look at the way we fish – most countries do multi-day trips, sticking with the same school of fish until it is fished out. Our fishermen fish for bait early in the morning, and then in the afternoon if they are lucky they find a school of tuna, fish it and then leave. The next day they make a wild guess as to where it has gone, and hope they get lucky.

“I also get the feeling that because of the high price we get, our fishermen are not putting in their best efforts. At Rf 25-30 (US$1.6-2) a kilogram, in the south it’s not uncommon for a fisherman to be on Rf 11,000 (US$720) a month. The mentality is: ‘I have enough for today, so I can relax. I don’t need to think about tomorrow.’”

Saleem believes the Maldives will eventually have no choice but to begin purse seining, augmenting traditional fishing know-how with technology such as aerial surveys to share with local fishermen sightings of birds circling the schools.

“The Maldives can certify pole and line fishing, while simultaneously conducting purse seining,” he says. “We need field officers to go on board and teach multi-day fishing techniques, such as using lights at night to catch squid and reef fish so that when they come back they have something to sell.”

Thailand tramples Maldives canning industry

As for Felivaru, the Maldives has to come to terms with the fact that it now competes in a global marketplace, and that maintaining such a level of industry is not economically competitive, Saleem suggests.

“If [Felivaru] is unable to compete in the global market it would be better to do something else. Do we ask why Airbus has not built a manufacturing plant in the Maldives? If [fish canning] is a matter of national pride, then so is having a nuclear plant.”

Based on an island in the north of the Maldives, Felivaru is faced with the high logistical costs of feeding and accommodating large numbers of staff, which other canneries in South Asia do not have to contend with.

“The main problem is that Felivaru is an old factory, and secondly the labour cost in the Maldives is very high compared to Sri Lanka or even Thailand,” adds the Fisheries Minister, Dr Didi.

“There is also a problem of quantity and [consistent supply]. If they are running a factory they require a certain amount of fish per day, which is not economic or feasible as the pole and line method means our fishing is seasonal. Felivaru has four production lines, but I doubt they have ever used more than 1-2 lines because not enough fish is available.”

Saleem adds that the Felivaru cannery “has expanded in the north, while the fish are in the south. It would be better for them to operate in Galle in Sri Lanka where they would not have pay the extra costs such as accommodation.”

The outsourced model has been embraced by Felivaru’s competitor, Kooddoo Fisheries, which now exports pole and line tuna caught in the Maldives to the Thai Union cannery in Thailand for processing and export to UK supermarkets such as Sainbury’s and Marks & Spencer (M&S). Kooddoo also buys cheaper purse seines-caught tuna, then processes and sells it to the Maldivian market at a cheaper price point, undercutting Felivaru. The company has recently opened a shop in Male’ and launched a marketing blitz.

“In Male’ we can buy fish caught one-by-one in an eco-friendly manner for Rf 18-19 (US$1.2). We can also buy an imported can of the same fish caught with purse seines for Rf 11 (US$0.70),” says Saleem.

“Instead we should eat the Rf 11 tin and export the Rf 19 tin to increase the amount of foreign currency available. The Maldives, Japan and India are not bothered about pole and line – it is only fashionable in Europe.”

Felivaru’s Solah complains that this approach forces the cannery to compete for the dwindling supply of fish with companies that are simply exporting the raw commodity without adding value.

“The government should be encouraging the fisheries industry to remain in the Maldives, because if the fish stay it means jobs and wealth stay in the country,” Solah argues.

“It is really sad to see the label on these cans that reads ‘Maldivian pole and line tuna’, complete with a picture of a Maldivian island, next to ‘Packed in Thailand’. Who is checking how much the Maldives supplies, compared to how many cans come out of Thailand? They can buy 1000 tons of Maldivian pole and line fish, and supply 2000 tons of Maldivian ‘pole and line fish’ to UK supermarkets. There is no regulatory board monitoring them.”

Saleem argues that Felivaru “cannot expect fish to be sold to it at a subsidised rate. Kooddoo is exporting because the price is better. The companies would not export if Felivaru was prepared to pay world market rates – they just wouldn’t, because of the increased cost of shipping.”

Solah concedes that the Thai Union cannery can afford to pay more for unprocessed fish, even including transport costs, because of the operation’s economies of scale, cheaper labour and lower overheads.

“People are willing to pay more for a premium pole and line product, but currently there is no disincentive to export unprocessed fish,” he says. “Government policy should be to add value while the fish is in the country, and to make sure there is enough fish available to run the factories inside the country at full capacity before exporting it.”

Maldives pole and line tuna, packed in Thailand

Sustainability sells, says Sainsbury’s

Minivan News contacted Sainsbury’s supermarket in the UK, which sells the Thai-processed product marketed as Maldivian pole and line tuna.

“The pole and line method is recognised as the most responsible fishing method for catching tuna mainly as a result of minimising bycatch in the fishery,” explained Sainsbury’s Aquaculture and Fisheries Manager, Ally Dingwall.

Media coverage around the issue of sustainability in fisheries meant it was “increasing in the public consciousness in the UK,” she said.

“The Maldives is associated with a pristine environment and clear, clean waters which deliver great quality tuna, and this is clearly attractive to consumers.”

The supermarket regularly audited its supply chain and was able to trace its products to the capture vessel via the batch code, she said.

“Sainsbury’s have had tuna products packed in the Maldives in the past but encountered logistical difficulties in supply. We are reviewing the situation at present with a view to recommencing an element of our supply from Maldivian canneries,” Dingwall explained. “Our suppliers of products such as sandwiches and sushi which contain tuna as an ingredient are already sourcing pouched, pole and line caught tuna from Maldivian processing establishments.”

Yet while the Maldivian fishing industry grapples with the pressures of climate change, globalisation and appeasing Big Grocery, the ring of foreign purse seines sieging the country’s EEZ are, according to the IOTC, scooping up tuna to the tune of US$2-3 billion a year.

“By catching fish one by one we are using a bucket to scoop from the well, while the rest of the world is pumping,” says Saleem. “It is going to finish – and we will not have got our share of the catch.”

On this, Solah agrees.

“If the Indian Ocean fisheries collapse, the European, Japanese, Chinese and Iranian vessels can go to other oceans. But what can we do? This is the only industry we know. We have to negotiate and beg other countries to please stop, because this is killing us.”


President of HRCM departs for Geneva

President of the Human Rights Commission Maldives (HRCM) Ahmed Saleem left for Geneva to take part in the 23rd session of the International Coordinating Committee (ICC) of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights to be held in Geneva from 22-25 March, reports Miadhu.

There will be 169 participants in the conference, representing National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) from all around the world.

Issues concerning NHRIs will be discussed, including challenges and developments in the engagement with regional human rights mechanisms, challenges for NHRIs in monitoring international obligations, the role of NHRIs in the protection of gender/women and child related issues, developments on the UN Draft Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training, human rights and business, and HIV related issues.

There will also be regional meetings, recommendations from international human rights bodies and discussions on emerging developments in human rights.


US State Department critical of women’s rights in the Maldives

Human rights in the Maldives have “continued to improve from the previous year, although some issues remain” according to the 2009 Country Report on Human Rights Practices published by the United States’ Department of State.

The report, published on 11 March, describes a case reported last September by detainees at Maafushi jail to the Human Rights Commission Maldives (HRCM) where “members of the Emergency Support Group (ESG)… indiscriminately attacked detainees.”

President of HRCM Ahmed Saleem said they have “received less complaints than in the past” regarding abuse of detainees.

Under the heading of “Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment” the report reads “the law prohibits such practices, although there were reports of mistreatment of persons by security forces.”

Saleem said the Maldives had endured “a culture of torture” for many years, “but things have changed and are still changing.”

On the unequal treatment of women, the report cites that “In 2008 the Ministry of Gender and Family released data showing an increase in the reported cases of violence against women, although NGOs believed that most cases remained unreported.”

Saleem said “in this country women enjoy more rights than in other countries,” noting that “women have been voting here for as long as I can remember.”

Saleem added that the United States still hasn’t ratified the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

“Ninety-nine countries have signed it,” Saleem said, “but not the United States.”

The report also states that “Under [Maldivian] law, spousal rape is not a crime” and “There are no laws in force regarding domestic violence against women or workplace harassment, nor were there firm data on the extent of violence against women.”

Saleem responded to this by saying that “domestic violence is a crime anywhere” and reiterated that the “population of Maldives is unique” and women enjoy many rights that women in other countries do not have.

Another point of concern shown in the report was that of the judicial system releasing known pedophiles back into the communities of their victims.

The report reads “The [Judicial Service Commission] JSC did not publicise deliberations or make recommendations on the hiring, dismissal, or discipline of judges during the year.”

The report says that according to the Maldives Police Service (MPS) “from January to March, 34 cases of child sexual abuse were reported, and 23 pedophiles were arrested.”

It also stated that there was an increase in the reporting of child abuse cases, which the MPS attributed to growing public awareness.

Saleem said the HRCM “is not in favour of the government releasing any criminal unless they are fit to live in society” and have been through a rehabilitation programme.

He added that the HRCM is “sending reports” to change these practices and “things are happening. But it’s not as quick as we want it to be.”

The Department of State’s report further reads “The law does not provide for freedom of religion and significantly restricts it” but only cited one case suggesting that a lack of freedom of religion could be seen as a human rights issue in the Maldives.

The report said that as the Ministry of Islamic Affairs has sole authority to grant preaching licenses, they requested the police investigate an independent prayer group led by unlicensed preachers. This could be seen as an infringement on the group’s rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association (section 2b of the report).

The Ministry of Islamic Affairs said the reason for the investigation was the threat of religious extremism.

The last major concern in the report was the rights of workers, mainly foreign labour workers.

According to the report, the HRCM had reported “some domestic workers, especially migrant female domestic workers, were in some cases trapped in circumstances bordering on forced labor in which employers used threats and intimidation to prevent them from leaving.”

The report adds that “In December 2008 the government established a Labour Relations Authority and a Labour Tribunal to implement the new Employment Law.”

The Tribunal did not begin functioning until April 2009 due to budgetary constraints and lack of office space.

When asked what he thought of the changes in human rights practices in the country, Saleem said “as far as civil rights go, we are a changed country.”


Government claims Reeko Moosa alcohol bust was “a set up”

Police are investigating an incident in which 168 bottles of alcohol were discovered last night in a car registered to Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik, on the same day controversial liquor licensing regulations were unveiled by the Ministry of Economic Development.

Sergeant Abdul Muhsin from the Maldives Police Service said four foreigners had been arrested over the incident, including three Sri Lankans and one Indian man. The investigation is ongoing, he noted.

Press Secretary for the President Mohamed Zuhair said he had spoken with police about the incident “and it looks like a set up.”

“Whoever brought that booze out from their warehouse knew it would be confiscated. The brands are not what you would call hot sellers – it was menthol gin and watered-down whiskey.”

Sergeant Muhsin identified the seized bottles as ‘King Roberts’ gin and ‘Muirhead’ whiskey.

Zuhair said he suspect the foreigners had been bribed “and were connected to certain political opponents of Moosa Manik, owing to the fact he is currently in Singapore.”

Adhil Saleem, State Minister for Economics Development, said he believed the incident to be “a very childish attack to damage [Moosa’s] reputation.”

“The same thing happened to me over the allegations I was found in a guest house with bottles of vodka and underage girls,” Adhil said. “This is another attempt to damage a political opponent.”

DRP Vice President Ibrahim Shareef said he was “not surprised” at the case, “but I doubt it will go very far.”

“There have been many similar incidents in the past,” he noted, “and in the worst case scenario Reeko’s driver will be implicated and that will be the end of the story.”

He said he “was sure” the incident was not a set up.

Vice President of the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) Umar Naseer said the bottles were connected to Moosa and that last night people had witnessed the actions of “one of the six top drug dealers in the Maldives.”

”Of course the bottles were connected to Moosa,” Umar said. ”How could somebody drive or carry something in his car without his knowledge?”

MP of DRP coalition partner the People’s Alliance (PA) Abdul Azeez Jamal Abu Bakru claimed that Zuhair’s words were not trustworthy and that the bottles must have belonged to Reeko Moosa or someone close to him.

”Why would somebody put the bottles inside Moosa’s car and try and blame him for it while he is not even in the Maldives?” he said.

Azeez added that furthermore he had information that the bottles “were supplied to celebrate the new regulations allowing alcohol on inhabited islands.”

PA Secretary General Ahmed Shareef said he would not comment on the issue.

News of the find is believed to have fuelled additional protests last night over the liquor licensing regulations published by the Ministry of Economic Development. One protest outside Iskandhar Koshi police base was eventually subdued with tear gas.


Besieged HRCM renews calls for Truth and Reconciliation Commission

The Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) has renewed calls for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in the Maldives, after coming under attack for failing to address the custodial abuse of political dissidents prior to 2002.

During the launch of the ‘Torture Victims Association’ NGO on Saturday night, MDP MP and founder ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik threatened to call for the dismissal of HCRM’s president Ahmed Saleem in the parliament.

“We’ve come out for justice for the torture we went through before 2002. If you can’t do it, why don’t you resign and go home,” he demanded.

At a press conference today, Saleem said that “since we are an institution working for human rights, we will give support to anyone working for human rights – our law compels us to protect and promote human rights, so [the TVA] will get our support and cooperation. But it should not be political.”

Yesterday the DRP accused the MDP of forming the TVA in an attempt to motivate its activists by uniting them against former president Abdul Maumoon Gayoom. Today Saleem emphasised that such an NGO cold only be justified “as long as there is no politics involved, as long as there’s some sincerity in what they’re doing. Already there’s a network of NGOs that we support, so it’s like any other… we will support it if it is genuinely working for human rights.”

However he added that “it’s is not our mandate to look into the type of allegations they’re making – we don’t talk about things that happened before a certain date. The main reason this is happening is, in truth, if there is no democratic system in a country for too long, [human rights abuses] will happen.”

Furthermore, he claimed, “we have to consider national unity, the state of the nation and if it’s the right thing to do. I would say this is a very dangerous time for the country’s future – as a small, homogeneous Islamic nation the Maldives cannot afford such bitter divisions.”

Although HRCM’s mandate did not extend past 2000, he said, the commission could technically investigate human rights abuses before that. But, he said, HRCM had to “consider the consequences of such an investigation.”

Instead, he reiterated his earlier call for a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), “with powers to conduct investigations, take witness statements and issue pardons in exchange for testimony.

“The Human Rights Commission does not have these kind of powers – the two things that are needed most for it are the powers to issue judgements and pardons. We don’t have either of these powers and neither does any human rights commission anywhere in the world.”

A TRC would demand the cooperation and participation “of all political parties, to move beyond the past.”

He added that the commission was concerned about the current unstable political atmosphere and the polarisation of Maldivian society, and stressed that a truth and reconcilation process should not be politicised.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Ahmed Shaheed today said he supported the concept of a TRC, but noted that a “blanket amnesty is illegal under international law.”

“The UN said it would not associate with the Sierra Leone amnesty in 1999. But yes, the notion that we need to address past grievances, find the truth, and through process of finding the truth find redress, is important. I think as the year progresses the idea will develop,” he said.

Three assessments on the human rights situation in the Maldives, produced by the government, HRCM and a coalition of NGOs, will be presented to a UN council in November this year. Shaheed said he hoped the government’s draft would be ready for public review by early February.


Forced labour and discrimination rife in the Maldives, claims report

Forced labour is a “serious problem” in the Maldives and a sign that the government is not fulfilling its obligations as a member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), claims a report into the country’s labour and trade union policies by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

The report, produced for the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in October, found a “relatively large number of forced labour-type situations among migrant workers and female domestic workers in the Maldives.”

“Domestic workers, especially migrant female domestic workers, are sometimes trapped in situations of forced labour and are in many cases forbidden from leaving the employers’ home through threats and other means,” the report said, citing figures from the 2009 report of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives.

“It is estimated that the number of migrant workers has almost tripled during the past five years and there are more than 80,000 migrant workers in the country, equivalent to
around 26 per cent of the population. While many are not in a situation to be defined as bonded labour or forced labour, many other labourers from neighbouring countries pay
large sums as commissions to receive employment in the Maldives and often are not in a position to quit their job before they have paid back the sums of money borrowed.”

“I think there’s some truth in it, particularly with female workers from Sri Lanka and India finding themselves in situations where they are not being paid, or not able to limit their working hours,” said President of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) Ahmed Saleem.

Children were particularly at risk, the report noted, with some of those migrating to Male from the outer islands for educational purposes finding themselves forced to work as informal domestic workers in exchange for accommodation and food.

“The house work done by such children is not voluntary in the cases where their continued stay in such houses depends on such children obediently doing house work as required by the owners of houses,” the report found, adding that child labour was also reported in the fishing industry.

Saleem said he had not heard of such practices in the fishing industry, but noted that when people living on the islands sent children to study in Male “many places will provide food and pay expenses, and in return the [child] may feel obliged to do work.”

There were many advertisements for such arrangements in local newspapers, he observed.

Workplace discrimination

The report also lambasted the government for failing to implement the prohibitions in the Constitution and Employment Act against workplace discrimination, especially regarding women.

“Women face discrimination at the workplace and in society, a problem which the government has failed to address in any satisfactory way,” the report said.

“At certain workplaces it is not permitted to get married or pregnant as this would lead to a termination of employment or change of job, and the complete absence of child care facilities forces many women to leave their job once their first child is born.”

Aishath Velezinee, member of the Judicial Services Commission, questioned whether this occurred and noted that the Maldives’ lack of childcare facilities stemmed from the culture historically relying on extended families for this purpose.

“Until lifestyles and ways of living began to change, there hasn’t been a need for it,” she said.

As for sexual harassment, another area highlighted in the report, “it exists but there is also a bill being drafted. I would say the state is addressing the issue.”

Discrimination based on sex was similar to that based on perceived cultural and profession hierarchies, she said.

“People don’t seem to understand the concept; they see [discrimination] as a cultural thing. It is a big issue: we don’t seem to understand the discrimination as it is meant in the Constitution or as it is expected in a democratic country.”

Even in the Supreme Court, she said, junior staff were made to take off their shoes and either wear slippers or go barefoot to protect the soft marble floors while senior staff could wear shoes.

The report also noted that women were prevented from working at many resorts because of their remote locations, as it was not considered socially acceptable for young unmarried females to stay on resorts for long durations.

“Traditionally women are disadvantaged in the Maldives, particularly in the application of Shari’a law in matters such as divorce, education, inheritance, and testimony in legal proceedings,” the report said, a state of affairs Velezinee admitted was “true”.

Saleem however observed that the Maldives treated women far better than other Islamic cultures, “where many [women] would describe themselves as slaves and sex objects.”

“Maldivian women have had voting rights since time immemorial. I’m not saying anything is perfect, but I think we have done more than other Islamic countries,” he said.

Collective bargaining

Furthermore, the report claimed that the Constitution and Employment Act contained no provisions allowing workers to collectively bargain, and despite the presence of active workers’ organisations such as the Tourism Employees’ Association of Maldives (TEAM) and the Teachers’ Association of the Maldives (TAM) the country had yet to formally recognise any trade unions.

“Strikes have been suppressed and encountered violent reactions from the the police [in the past],” the report said, observing that “freedom of association is still far from common practice.”

The right to collective bargaining “should be integrated [into the Constitution and Employment Act] now the Maldives is a member of the ILO,” the report urged.

“It must be the primary priority of the Maldives to ratify and fully implement the eight core ILO conventions and bring its labour law and practice in line with international labour standards.”

Saleem agreed: “Everyone knows the Employment Act needs changes. The Labour Ministry has said it will look at the recommendations we made [on the subject], but it has been two months. It’s time the government made it a priority – the Labour Minister has a lot of work to do.”