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.


Comment: Pigeons and slaves

Our city is not an easy place in which to live. Generally more expensive than any other capital in the region, Male’ is crowded beyond capacity. A thousand motorcycles line every road, cars without places to park at every turn, and the smog created by both suffocating any who dare to walk. Not only are our sidewalks too small, but our homes too overstuffed. Electricity, water, food; the list goes on and on.

And when it all just gets to be too much, we escape to where we can. The Artificial Beach, Jumhooree Maidhan, anywhere to get some space. Yet as I walk along stone pavement to those few clearings we have, I turn my head and look around and I do not see my countrymen. I do not see my people taking respite. As many pigeons as I see in my Republican Square, can I see foreigners crowding my spaces as well. In every direction that I turn, I am alienated in a space that is mine.

In my youth I would want to banish these usurpers. I would want these spaces cordoned off so that a National Identity Card would be required to enter this bare ground, these sanctuaries. Pigeons and foreigners both, I wanted to get rid of them. I wanted my spaces back. We deal with constant societal tension and neglect, and to demand a space for the release of such tension was my right. I ignored the tug at the back of my mind calling these thoughts racist, and refused to accept the dignity of others over the xenophobic tendencies which seem to run through my veins. But now I look back and have to ask: Is it really true? Is such constant and persistent (maybe even mild in some instances, but still ever-present) hatred so deeply rooted within our nation?

I was offended through my national pride that our national places were not ours anymore.

But maybe national pride is supposed to be more than outward patriotism. Maybe it’s working towards getting jobs for the 50 percent of youth who are without them. Maybe it’s addressing the government problems so that there are fewer foreign workers and no illegal aliens. It may even be ensuring those who remain are treated with respect and dignity. Should this not be part of our national pride? Should not all human dignity be part of our patriotism and duty?

Understanding why

But to move beyond our annoyance at them for being here and the illusion that it is a necessary annoyance, we must come to understanding.

Why are there workers in the country?

Why are they treated badly?

Why are there so many illegal aliens?

Why are more workers continually being brought in spite of this?

And how do we fix it?

Social Negligence

These foreign workers are here because there is a demand. Everything a Maldivian can do, a foreigner can do cheaper. Why can they do it cheaper? Not because they are more capable, or that all Maldivians are inherently lazy, but for the very reason they are treated badly.

They are not provided adequate housing, or basic needs such as sustenance. And when the cost going into them is so little, they can afford to offer themselves cheaply as it is their only means to survival. Fundamental human rights and levels of comfort we would demand as a basic need is so far beyond them that it is not their immediate concern. As the defenders and apologists of dictators the world over often say: What starving man thinks of rights?

But in this case we have collectively robbed them of their rights. Of their very human dignity. These men and women are brought here to live in squalid conditions and we allow it because someone has to do the job. So we justify injustice and go about our daily lives.

Why is it that people do not see, that if we just raise their basic standards of living to something that is acceptable to us, we would be able to encourage more Maldivians to enter their workforce as well? Why is it that we refuse to put a minimum wage standard for foreigners when we fought so hard to have it applied to ourselves? Why is it that even the foreign labourers that were employed by the government were only paid $50 USD a month up until recent years when it was increased to a $100 USD?

If we place a reasonable minimum wage, require basic necessities such as housing, bedding, water (to drink and wash), and food to be provided to those labourers brought in, then we even the playing field. Maldivians will be able to be competitive. As someone who owns a share in a construction company, I refuse the excuse that this will bankrupt our companies. I refuse the excuse that it is fiscally unviable. And I refuse any other excuse that would put basic human dignity and rights beyond one’s reach.

Government Negligence

The reason why there are so many illegal aliens is because people in the government (previous and current, legislative and executive) have not cared to address the situation properly. They had other more important matters, vested interests, and always the threat from the entire business community to contend with. Why fix a system that is not really broken? After all, the businesses benefit from cheap labour and a couple illegals here or there only means they will be even cheaper to hire.

While this is the reasoning behind the reality, the practical reason why illegal alien growth persists is mostly due to the quota system.

But let me explain the entire procedure first: If you want to bring a labourer, your business has to be licensed by the Ministry of Economic Development. Then you have to apply to the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Labour, explaining the projects you have and why you need the labour to begin with. This Ministry then issues you a quota of workers you can bring in after making a half-hearted attempt at hiring Maldivians you don’t really want to deal with.

When you want to bring in your labourers, you contact a broker and get the Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Labour to issue you your work permits for these people. These work permits are then shown to the Immigration Department under the Ministry of Home Affairs and visas are issued on arrival.

The quota system is slightly ridiculous for two reasons.

Firstly, as former Bangladeshi Ambassador Professor Selina Mohsin mentioned, many quotas are created with inadequate proposals and flimsy justification for the number of people needed. Excess people are then loaned out to other companies.

Secondly, conditions are so bad for workers, that when they run away, the Ministry simply reissues the company who lost them with new work permits so that they can still have their quota of people.

If we ignore the first issue as easily rectifiable with greater vigilance, we’re left with the second problem. If a company loses their employees, they are forced to put out an advertisement showing who they lost. But this still means that they are left without enough labour to complete their project. So the Ministry feels obligated to issue them new work permits without so much as a slap on the wrist, essentially allowing even more people into the country without addressing those already here.  The Immigration Department then has no choice but to offer visas to whomever new work permits are issued to.

No government administration has tried to penalise companies for losing people or for providing such inadequate housing and provision for employees. The government has not been active in trying to guarantee the rights of foreign workers, and there has been no thought of creating requirements of minimum wages, clean bedding, water for washing, and suitable sustenance for foreigners. Parliament and the Ministries have taken very little action.

The illegal hordes

The Labour Ministry’s solution was to document illegal aliens, and when people ran away from hostile work environments, they would make those here illegally take the runaway’s place. The business community revolted and we have seen little implementation of this practice since its inception.

The conditions are so bad that many would choose homelessness and destitution, begging for any work that is available so that they can survive. Many become runners for the local drug dealers and spend their days delivering these products of sin. Those who are lucky find Maldivian wives, who (as one person told me) then “feed them, shelter them, and massage their feet.”

Many who do this work for a while and make enough to return to their families in their places of origin, leaving their Maldivian wives without much recourse. This exploitation of Maldivian women caused the Immigration Department to enact regulations that ensure foreigners could provide for themselves and would not be leeches to their Maldivian partners.

But still more foreigners flee from their Maldivian masters and become illegal aliens in this country. And because they flee we bring in more and more people. Last month alone, over two thousand foreign labourers were brought into the country. At this rate, the foreign population in the Maldives will rival our own within our life time (sooner if we take into account our declining birthrate).


To deny a person basic needs, to make him dependent, but also desperate to get away is to make that man a slave.

That what we have in this country is referred to only as human trafficking not outright slave trade is something the government should be grateful for.

We need to change and be the instruments of that change. We need to pass legislation holding companies accountable. We need to respect foreigners’ basic right to human dignity, and put forward a minimum wage that will level the playing field between Maldivians and foreigners.

When more of us work side by side with them, we will have less hostility to those who are in our spaces. What is more, fewer of them will be there, and we will be content to share something that is ours, because we will not feel overwhelmed and isolated.

National dignity and pride can only be achieved when we uphold the dignity of all of those within our borders. When we recognise our prejudices and expunge our xenophobia as something unworthy and distasteful.


Report condemns Maldives for inaction on human trafficking

The Maldives has been placed on the US State Department watch-list for human trafficking, following the country’s failure to “investigate or prosecute trafficking-related offenses or take concrete actions to protect trafficking victims and prevent trafficking in the Maldives.”

The State Department’s 2010 Human Trafficking report, which comes less than a month after the Maldives was given a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, is scathing of government inaction, particularly regarding forced labour and exploitation of Bangladeshi nationals.

“An unknown number of the 110,000 foreign workers currently working in the Maldives – primarily in the construction and service sectors – face fraudulent recruitment practices, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or non-payment of wages, or debt bondage,” the report noted.

“Diplomatic sources estimate that half of the 35,000 Bangladeshis in the Maldives went there illegally and that most of these workers are probably victims of trafficking.”

The report noted that even legal workers were vulnerable to conditions of forced labor, and that the Maldives did not provide services such as shelter, counseling, medical care, or legal aid to foreign or Maldivian victims of trafficking.

The government’s “general policy” for dealing with trafficking victims was deportation, the report said, “and it did not provide foreign victims with legal alternatives to their removal to countries where they might face hardship or retribution. On an ad-hoc basis, it provided extremely short-term housing for migrants immediately before deportation.”

The Maldives did not comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking in persons, however the US State Department conceded that the government “is making significant efforts to do so.”

“Despite these efforts, the government lacks systematic procedures for identifying victims of trafficking among vulnerable populations, and during the reporting period it did not investigate or prosecute trafficking-related offenses or take concrete actions to protect trafficking victims and prevent trafficking in the Maldives,” it said, placing the Maldives on a ‘tier 2 watch list’ alongside Afghanistan, Brunei, Laos, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Trafficking offenders

Little progress had been made to identify and prosecute trafficking offenders, the report noted, classing three types: “families that subject domestic servants to forced labor; employment agents who bring low-skilled migrant workers to the Maldives under false terms of employment and upon payment of high fees; and employers who subject the migrants to conditions of forced labor upon arrival.”

The report acknowledged “a small number” of women from Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, China, the Philippines, Eastern Europe, and former Soviet Union countries that had been recruited “for forced prostitution in Male”, while underage Maldivian girls were reportedly also trafficked to Male from other islands for involuntary domestic servitude, “a corruption of the widely acknowledged practice where families send Maldivian girls to live with a host family in Male for educational purposes.”

However in numercial terms, the bulk of country’s human trafficking revolved around illegal recruitment of migrant workers, mostly from Bangladesh, who paid on average between US$1,000 to US$4,000 in recruitment fees in order to migrate to the Maldives, potentially indebting them to an employer or agent and making them vulnerable to forced labor.

Limited enforcement

The government had made “limited” efforts to enforce anti-human trafficking laws during the last year, the report said, noting that while the country did not have explicit laws prohibiting human trafficking, the Constitution forbade forced labour and slavery.

“However, the government did not investigate or prosecute any trafficking cases and the only prescribed penalty for labor trafficking offenses is a fine,” it observed.

It noted that the Labor Tribunal, created as part of the 2008 Employment Act, heard eight cases involving foreign workers whose wages had not been paid, but lacked the legal authority to enforce its decision.

“In addition, employment tribunal members and employees expressed concerns about their ability to resolve cases involving foreign workers because all their proceedings were conducted in [Dhivehi],” it added.

Moreover, the report said that the Maldives may have “inappropriately incarcerated, fined, or otherwise penalised” unlawfully trafficked persons because of a lack of comprehensive victim identification procedures.

“The government did not conduct any anti-trafficking or educational campaigns and it did not take steps to create an inter-agency structure – such as a committee or plan of action – for coordination on anti-trafficking matters,” it said, adding that government additionally made no effort to reduce demand for forced labor on the islands.

It noted that in 2010 the Maldives had enacted a provision requiring all employers to use employment agents, and recommended it take steps to ensure that employers and labor brokers “were not abusing labour recruitment or sponsorship processes in order to subject migrant workers to forced labour.”


President of the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM), Ahmed Saleem, said the US State Department’s report did not reflect well on the country.

“This is something the government had not believed was happening in the Maldives [until recently],” he said.

“This doesn’t reflect well on us, and it’s an issue that has to be addressed. I’m glad the issue of trafficking has been recognised.”

Saleem acknowledged a deeper “cultural issue” concerning the exploitation of Bangladeshi expatriates, one he noted “is getting worse on a daily basis.”

“Usually Maldivians are very tolerant of expats coming and working here,” he observed.

He added that the commission was currently compiling a report on human trafficking in the Maldives, and noted that while the State Department’s report was highly critical of the Maldives, the US itself had committed “gross human rights violations”, and “should hold itself to the same standards to which it holds other countries.”

“They should also expect criticism,” he said.

Introducing the report, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that 2010 was the first time the United States had included itself in the rankings,

“The United States takes its first-ever ranking not as a reprieve but as a responsibility to strengthen global efforts against modern slavery, including those within America. This human rights abuse is universal, and no one should claim immunity from its reach or from the responsibility to confront it,” she said.

“Huge scams”

Bangladeshi High Commissioner Professor Selina Mohsin said “unscrupulous brokers” were bringing Bangladeshi nationals into the country by photocopying legitimate work visas – bearing her signature -“hundreds of times”, which authorities were continuing to accept at the border.

“I’ve tried to meet the Human Resources Minister [Hassan Latheef] and ask him to stop accepting photocopies of work permits,” she said.

“I haven’t signed a single work permit since the beginning of April – how is it workers are still coming into the Maldives? Just today I found a copy of my signature on a photocopied work permit. Unless the original is brought over by the employee, we can’t stop this,” she said, suggesting there was “some problem” occurring at either the labour ministry or immigration.

“All they have to do is stop letting [illegal expatriates] into the country. It is ridiculous that this is happening – why can’t the government only accept original work permits?”

Prof Mohsin said the situation was a result of brokers and employers, both in the Maldives and overseas, running “huge scams” reaching up to several hundred million US dollars.

“I just tried to have a Bangladeshi agent deported – I caught him almost red-handed – but his Maldivian friends have taken him to court so he can stay in the country,” she said, noting that the case was still ongoing.

Few of the local authorities had Bangla speakers, she noted, making communication an issue as well. For example, the employment tribunal was conducting cases in Dhivehi and the expatriates involved could not understand what was going on, she said.

“It should be the government providing interpreters, rather than us,” she claimed. “In places like the UK there are policemen who speak other languages.”

When workers arrived and became unemployed, “they can’t be deported because that costs money, and if there’s no employment, people turn to crime,” she noted.

Prof Mohsin was also critical of HRCM, commenting that she “hardly saw [Saleem] anywhere. If he is invisible, what use is it in having a Human Rights Commission?”

Minister for Human Resources Hassan Latheef had not responded to Minivan News at time of press.