Ongoing strike at Vilu Reef resort sees 18 staff fired

Vilu Reef resort has allegedly terminated 18 members of staff, with some given just one hour to leave, after employees had presented management with a list of grievances.

Speaking with Minivan News, Ahmed Rasheed – a Vilu Reef employee for two years before his dismissal yesterday – described his termination:

“They sent me with 5 police guards into my room. They locked the door and asked me to pack within one hour.”

Vilu Reef is part of the Sun Travel & Tours group – a company owned by the prominent businessman and Maldives Development Alliance (MDA) leader Ahmed ‘Sun’ Shiyam.

After compiling a list of grievances against the resort, Rasheed explained that he had prepared a petition on which he managed to get 153 signatures from fellow staff.

He recalled that the demands were then presented to the hotel management on March 17, who came back to the employees, suggesting “if you don’t want to stay here you can leave.”

After conferring with the staff team, employees then decided to strike, stated Rasheed, with around 50 resort employees congregating at around 11pm with their demands on Sunday (March 23).

The management called police, but assured staff that no would be terminated, said Rasheed. They agreed to carry out amendments to meet the requests as of the April 30, he added, “so the next day we went back to work.”

“I was fired after two days,” continued Rasheed. “They just give me a call and said ‘hey can you come to the office’, then they gave me a letter. They asked me to sign.”

According to Rasheed’s termination contract, the reason Vilu Reef fired him was because his post was no longer available.

The termination letter stated that the employees were being fired due to their posts “being made redundant” and were asked to leave with “immediate effective (sic) of March 25”.

The letter acknowledges that there should be one month’s notice for the termination of staff, and therefore the management “have decided to as an extra measure compensation payment in lieu of three months notice period.”

The next steps, according to Rasheed, are being supported by the Tourism Association of Maldives (TEAM).

“We are not a member of TEAM but we are really thanking them for their help. They are helping us to do something good. At least we have some people who are trying to get our rights back.”

Workers’ right to strike

TEAM Secretary General  Mauroof Zakir told Minivan News that TEAM would assist the staff in taking the case to the Employment Tribunal, though felt there would be “no hope” for a fair case.

“Shiyam is very strong here,” he noted, “one of the partners of the government.”

“Since 2012 the decisions are against international standards and international best practice,” he added. “It’s all corrupt judiciary, and high court decisions against employment cases are one of the key factors.”

According to the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act 2013, tourist resorts, ports, and airports fall into a category of places in which protests are prohibited.

The US State Department expressed concern about the change in this law in their recently released 2013 Human Rights Report.

Local NGOs Transparency Maldives and the Maldivian Democracy Network have also expressed their concern that the law has impacted upon freedom of peaceful assembly.

No-one from the management team at Vilu Reef was available for comment when contacted by Minivan News.

Earlier this year the prestigious One & Only Reethi Rah resort saw an estimated 90% of its employees partake in an organised strike against perceived ill treatment and discrimination.

The strike was called following the management’s failure to meet employees to discuss concerns regarding discrimination against local workers, and a team of police were dispatched to the resort.

In a similar case in September 2013, staff at Irufushi Beach and Spa resort reported a “firing spree” affecting staff members professing to support the Maldivian Democratic Party.

The resort, which in May 2013 abruptly terminated its agreement with hotel giant Hilton – leading to the overnight resignation of 30 employees – is also part of the Sun Travel group.

A source working at the hotel at the time of publishing stated, “Shiyam took over this resort in what the staff refers to as another coup d’etat at the resort level. Since then we have been gradually stripped of rights we are legally entitled to as citizens of the Maldives.”


Criminal Court suspends staff refusing unpaid overtime

The Criminal Court has suspended a number of staff members after they allegedly refused to work overtime, reports local media.

According to local media reports, last Monday (10 February) staff at the Criminal Court refused to work overtime and left for home after the court informed them they would not be paid for overtime.

Local newspaper Haveeru quoted an employee, saying that they had been told of the suspension today. Media reports have quoted figures of around a dozen staff being involved.

According to the staff, they had previously petitioned the judges at the court over the issue prior to the strike.

The staff member who spoke to Haveeru has said that the decision to suspend the staff was made by the judges, suggesting that this was not an authority the judges had.

He also said that there were judges in the court that do not work overtime, but that no action had been taken against them thus making their own suspension unfair.

Furthermore, the employee revealed that before the allowances for judges working at night was introduced, there were four days on which all the judges of the court other that the chief judge had refused to work at night.

He also noted one instance when the chief judge had handed responsibility for extension of detention hearings to a junior colleague, before going fishing, with the result that there was no one at the court to proceed with these hearings.

Recently, the Criminal Court decided to close down after official work hours due to budget restrictions.

The court at the time told the press that it had no funds to pay overtime allowances for employees, and that the Ministry of Finance had not responded regarding the matter. The Civil Court has taken the same measures owing to lack of funds.

Spokesperson of Judicial Administrations Latheefa Gasim referred Minivan News to the Director of Department of Judicial Administration Ahmed Majidh, who in turn referred Minivan News to a Criminal Court media official.

Criminal Court media official Ahmed Mohamed Manik subsequently said he would not like to comment on the matter.

Producing an extensive report on the state of the Maldivian judiciary last year, UN Special Rapporteur for the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Gabriela Knaul raised serious concerns about an impending budget catastrophe facing the judicial system.

“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 in May 2013.

“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,” read Knaul’s report.


Museum staff express concern over moving artifacts to host Independence Day event

National Museum staff and Male’-based arts NGO Revive have expressed concern over plans to move delicate exhibits for upcoming Independence Day celebrations to be held in the museum.

“We at the national museum believe the museum’s objects are very valuable and cannot be replaced if anything happens to any of the items,” National Museum Director Ali Waheed told Minivan News.

“I am concerned, we are not happy about this,” Waheed said.

He said that the President’s Office had sent a letter about holding the Independence Day event to the Tourism Ministry, which had in turn notified their Department of National Heritage.

“The department only informed us about the event three days ago,” Waheed claimed.

He said there were concerns that National Heritage Department Director General Zakariyya Hussain had not consulted museum staff about whether holding the event in the museum would be sensible.

“Zakariyya gave the approval but he didn’t say anything to us. He didn’t want to talk about it. At least he has to ask if this is good or not,” he claimed.

The President’s Office meanwhile said it had not been informed of the museum staff’s grievances, while rejecting claims that there would be any issues with holding such an event in the museum.

The President’s Office held an Independence Day event at the National Museum last year, which posed the same challenges to staff as it took place during Ramazan. The permanent exhibition items had to be shifted internally and placed against the walls to clear the middle of the hall, according to Assistant Curator Ismail Ashraf.

“[However,] it was quite different last year because there were many political issues and they were not able to get another venue,” noted Ashraf.

“During last year’s ceremony government agency heads and parliament members attended and there was no damage to the objects,” he continued. “However, there is the risk and probability of something happening [this year] when 400 plus people will be attending.”

Staff accepted that a similar event to celebrate the 2012 Independence Day had been held at the museum without incident – although the guest list is anticipated to be larger this year.

President’s Office Spokesperson Masood Imad told Minivan News yesterday (July 22) that the government did care about preserving Maldivian culture and heritage, but dismissed concerns that there were any politics involved in the event.

“There is enough time [for museum staff to prepare], we have not been informed [holding the event is problematic],” said Masood. “Nobody feels it is an issue. Minivan News is not the party that should be spreading these concerns, this is not a claim the museum staff are making, Minivan News is actually,” Masood said.

NGO Revive has meanwhile said it plans to submit a petition, signed by National Museum staff, to the President’s Office tomorrow (July 24) requesting the government reconsider its decision to hold the July 27 Independence Day celebrations inside the National Museum.

National Museum concerns

“We are caring about these things very much. The objects are very, very old and delicate. If they are moved several times, it may cause damage. I am responsible for their safety and security,” Waheed told Minivan News.

“I submitted a letter to Director General Zakariyya Hussain at 1:10pm on Monday (July 22) that we [the museum staff] are not responsible [for the damage that may be caused] when the objects are side by side in the hall,” he claimed.

Ashraf the assistant curator echoed Waheed’s sentiments that moving the artifacts to accommodate the event risked damaging them.

“It’s a permanent exhibition and we will have to move everything [on the ground floor] away to make a walkway for people for the ceremony,” Ashraf told Minivan News. “There are many artifacts to have to move, and having to do so quickly poses a risk of damaging the objects.”

“The other risk is that lots of people come in and not all will think the same way we do, [so] it is a risk that people may touch or take,” he continued.

Ashraf explained said that since the museum only has six permanent staff, the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) is supposed to help with moving the artifacts.

“They can help move the very heavy things, but we have to be there to supervise. We are in charge and if there is any damage [caused to the items] we are responsible,” he said.

Since it is currently the holy month of Ramazan, the amount of work National Museum staff can accomplish in preparation for the Independence Day event is also limited due to restricted working hours, Ashraf explained.

“In the month of Ramazan, museum hours are 9:00am to 1:30pm. This Independence Day event will take place Saturday night and Sunday  morning we have to open the museum [to visitors],” he noted.

Ashraf urged the President’s Office to hold the event in another location.

“This year there are other options, so why still choose the National Museum?” he asked.

“The National Art Gallery has a full hall empty for temporary exhibitions, with enough space for the ceremony”.

Ashraf also noted that artifacts were destroyed “the day the government changed”, during former President Mohamed Nasheed’s controversial transition of power last year – by people with “different thoughts” to those of the museum’s staff.

“A mob of people took advantage of the lack of security,” he explained. “These things happened and the risk [of it happening again] is still there. It shows the government doesn’t have much interest in this work,” he alleged.

Civil society support

Revive, a local NGO which works in collaboration with the National Archives and National Museum, has advocated in support of the museum staff’s concerns surrounding the event.

“I’m very surprised the government [is holding this event] but are not able to arrest those who vandalized the museum last year,” Revive President Ahmed Naufal told Minivan News.

“Moving permanent exhibitions is not done anywhere in the world, only temporary exhibitions,” Naufal explained.

“National Museum staff have a low budget and are unable to preserve [everything],” he continued. “There is a high risk items will be destroyed by moving the exhibition.”

National museum staff have signed the ‘Revive Petition’, which calls on the government to reconsider its decision to hold the Independence Day celebrations inside the National Museum, as it would require moving the permanent collection of artifacts which could cause damage that cannot be restored.

“Fifteen staff have signed the petition. That’s everyone who came to the [National] Museum and Heritage Department,” noted Naufal.

“This includes the only Maldivian archaeologist from the Heritage Department, Shiura Jaufar and the National Museum Director.”


Government cuts costs of foreign missions, sacks staff

The government is cutting the costs of its 13 overseas missions, Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Abdul Samad Abdulla told local media today.

“Foreign mission expenses are very high. In addition to the salaries, a large sum is spent on rent for officials,” Samad said, noting that the Maldives spent MRV 3.5 million (US$227,000) a year just on rent for some employees based overseas.

As well as curtailing maintenance of some missions, Samad said Councillor at the high commission in Malaysia, Hassan Khalid, and Deputy High Commissioner of the Maldives to India Khadeeja Ibrahim had also been dismissed “after serious deliberation”, Samad said,


Four Seasons bemoans lack of female involvement in record apprentice intake

The Four Seasons Hotels group has said it is taking on a record number of apprentices at its Maldives resorts over the next twelve months – despite still facing challenges in attracting local women to work in the tourism industry.

At a ceremony held at the Nasandhura Palace Hotel in Malé this morning, 34 graduates were honoured for completing twelve month training courses in specific hospitality areas such as housekeeping and guest management, food preparation, marine transportation and watersports.

The hospitality group, which operates both the Four Seasons Resort Landaa Giraavaru and Four Seasons Resort Kuda Huraa properties in the Maldives, is taking on 60 apprentices during the next year – a company record.

Speaking at the ceremony, Armando Kraenzlin, Regional Vice President and General Manager for Four Seasons Resorts in the Maldives, said that while “interest and the ambition to learn” was growing amongst the Maldivian workforce, encouraging women to come and work was, if anything, more difficult.

“We would ask the government, help us get more girls [into the scheme] in future,” he said. “ It has got harder today than a few years ago and that can’t be right.”

While supporting the work of groups like Four Seasons in training local staff to take up more specialised positions in the country’s resort industry, one body representing Maldivian tourism workers has called on the private sector and the government to reconsider how the current curriculum prepares school leavers for a career in the hospitality industry.

From the perspective of the Four Seasons’ operations, Armando Kraenzlin today said that schemes such as its graduate programme were vital to a company continuing to try and drive innovation across its 86 hotel operations. However, he claimed the training programmes were not without challenges.

“This year we lost one member [of the graduate program] after twelve hours,” he said.

Kraenzlin said that confusion had arisen after the staff member had not realised that they had agreed not to smoke on the resort as part of their contract, a commitment the person was unable to fulfil.

Applicant hunger

However, the company claimed that with some 500 applicants looking to fill just 60 apprenticeship spaces this year – there was a clear hunger and demand for training positions such as these in the tourism industry.

“People have travelled 16 hours by boat to come to sit interviews here in Male’ with us,” Kraenzlin said, a development he claimed demonstrated the commitment of staff to obtain places on the graduate scheme.

During today’s ceremony, Four Seasons claimed that as part of this year’s graduate class, an additional discipline call “international conversations” was being taught in order to help staff communicate with an increasingly diverse customer based including guests from China, Korea and Russia.

Beyond just learning language, the company claimed the course was designed to provide an understanding of these nations’ history, culture and even cuisine.

For the year ahead, Kraenzlin said the company was also currently working on launching a prototype engineering course.

“We know that Maldivians are tech-savvy, as well as engineering-savvy,” he said.

Kraenzlin added that with the company’s graduate scheme now in its eleventh year, the program was very much “here to stay”.  Yet he called on the government, represented by Education Minister Asim Ahmed in the audience, to help to strengthen the training the company provided to local workers.

“We are inviting the government to tell us how to do this better. Who knows, maybe we will have one class who makes it to the finish-line without any casualties during the year,” he said, referring to previous applicants who had dropped out from the course.

Education Ministry

In addressing Kraenzlin’s invite, Education Minister Asim said that Four Seasons was an “important partner” in regards to education and training in the country, especially for helping to bridge skills gaps in the current curriculum.

“There is a shortage of skills in the country that is a major challenge needing to be addressed,” he said.

With tourism being one of the most significant contributors to the nation’s economy, Asim welcomed the work of resort groups such as Four Seasons in helping the ongoing development of the national work force.

“I am personally a major supporter of linking with the private sector with schemes such as this,” he said.

TEAM view

In addressing Four Seasons’ commitments to staff training, the Tourism Employees Association of Maldives (TEAM), which aims to represent local workers’ rights in hospitality, said it was ultimately encouraged by the apprenticeship programmes ran by the multinational group.

TEAM’s Secretary General Mauroof Zakir, who was himself a graduate of Four Season’s training programme between 2004 and 2005, believed such programs were a huge benefit to the local workforce.

“From my personal understanding, the Four Seasons graduate program is one of the best. When I did the programme, I really didn’t know anything about the resort industry before going in,” he said. “When I came out, I had a much greater understanding of the work environment, though I don’t know how the program has changed since.”

Despite welcoming the graduate scheme, Zakir claimed that more needed to be done by both the government and the tourism industry to provide greater practical experiences of the resort industry to school students.

“Both resort management and the government need to look at providing more practical experiences for students of resort life,” he said. “We need to look at changes to the curriculum to get more visits to resorts. School leavers should have a much better understanding of how resorts work.”

While Zakir said he was aware of several high-end multinational resort chains providing training programs for local workers, he believed many locally-owned resorts, usually targeted at more mid-market tourism, needed to do more with their respective training schemes.

TEAM said it was not presently involved in helping outline training programs, adding that it did not receive much information from either the government or industry regarding existing projects.  However,  with an organisational mandate to try and increase the capacity of Maldivian workers in the tourism industry, the organisation claimed it would be open to playing a role in the development of future vocational training for local people.

Female worker challenge

In addressing Four Seasons’ concerns about a short-fall in the number of Maldivian women coming to work at the country’s resorts, Zakir said he believed there were several issues affecting local recruitment of females into the hospitality sector.

“Groups like Four Seasons have been trying hard to get local women to work at its resorts.   But we don’t see much improvement in the number of women workers.” he said.

Zakir claimed that more “extremist” views had been “widely spreading” around the country in recent years, creating additional social problems in encouraging female workers to come and work in hospitality.

To try and counter these messages, TEAM said that it was vital to communicate with schools and parents that resorts were not a threatening environment for women to work at.

While there had been concerns in the past involving allegations of sexual harassment against female staff, Zakir stressed that local women should not be discouraged from seeking employment on resorts.

“We need more local women working on resorts right now,” he said. “An estimated 300 to 400 Maldian women are currently thought to be working in hospitality at resorts. This is a very small amount.”

In terms of practical ways to encourage a greater number of female staff, Zakir suggested resorts could provide more regular transportation to and from resort islands as one possible solution. Such a measure, he claimed, could allow female staff to commute to work more regularly, allowing more contact with their families at home.


Kurumba management evacuates guests as strike talks deadlock

An ongoing strike at Kurumba Maldives resort near Male’ has prompted management to move the island’s guests to other resorts run by the Universal Group, while other visitors have chosen to leave the country.

More than 150 Maldivian and expatriate staff are on strike after complaining of poor staff facilities, low wages, unfair distribution of service charges and discrimination between local and foreign staff.

Assistant Human Resources Manager Ibrahim Hassan told Minivan News that no staff were currently working at the resort, as “almost all” were now involved in the strike action. Nearly 250 guests had been relocated to other resorts or had cut short their holidays and left the country, he said.

“At the moment [the strikers] are very calm. They are standing in front of the Human Resources [office] and not coming out of the staff area,” Ibrahim said.

“Yesterday it became serious when they came out of the staff area and threatened senior management. Some senior managers have [subsequently] left the island.”

A third meeting between staff and management yesterday failed to resolve the deadlock, he noted. No staff member had yet been dismissed, he added.

Police have meanwhile arrived on the island to monitor the situation. Police Sub-Inspector Ahmed Shiyam said a police team was sent after police received reports that management were being threatened.

A staff member on strike told Minivan News that the workers decided to continue the strike after management “did not give us an adequate answer” by the workers’ deadline of 4:00pm yesterday.

“Nobody is on duty and guests have complained about the poor services, so the management decided to transfer all the guests to other resorts,” he said.

Striking staff complain to senior managers

During the last meeting resort management had given the staff a written reply to their demands, promising the construction of a new staff accommodation block in September and the formation of a staff committee representing various departments.

“We have four main concerns: wages, service charge [payments], food and accommodation,” he said. “For food and accommodation they gave a pleasant answer. But regarding wages and the service charge, they could not give an adequate answer – they said they were revising the salaries but did not know when they could increase them.”

When staff said the response was inadequate, management replied they were unable to alter the decision, he said.

“That response caused outrage among staff and some of the senior management officials were forced to leave the island,’’ he added. “Police came to the island to control the situation.’’

The staff claimed they would strike until management fulfilled their demands, he said.

Sim Mohamed Ibrahim from the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI) described the industrial action at Kurumba as “a clear reflection of what little protection is provided to investors and businesses under the present laws pertaining to the conduct of business in the country.”

“The reality of the situation is that an investment of millions of dollars can be crippled andheld at ransom within a few hours by its own employees, whose grievances may or may not be real,” Sim said, adding that this situation had recently occurred in several resorts.

“The situation in Kurumba is a case in point. On Sunday August 22 the resort occupancy [percentage] was in the 80’s. Towards evening that day occupancy had fallen to less than 20% percent,” Sim said. “Tourists, tour operators and senior management have been too terrified to remain in the resort, and today the resort is empty.”

“There should be no ground for any party to reduce visitors and businesses in this country to a state of fear and terror, whoever may be at fault. The government must provide tourists and investors with adequate protection,” Sim said.

The Universal-run resort near Male’ is one of the oldest private resort islands in the Maldives, reopening as a five-star luxury resort in 2004 following renovation.