Resort workers rally for ‘living wage’

Resort workers staged a rally in Malé today calling on the government to set a US$600 minimum wage and to pass a trade union law to allow collective bargaining.

The Tourism Employees Association of Maldives (TEAM) organised the rally after collecting about 7,000 signatures on a petition with five main demands.

“Our campaign calling on the government and resort owners to fulfil our demands will go on, even if, in the process, resorts become unable to operate,” secretary general of the TEAM, Mauroof Zakir, told Minivan News at the rally.

TEAM has circulated the petition in more than 70 of the Maldives’ 108 resorts since April. More than half of the 11,426 Maldivians employed in the multi-billion dollar industry have signed the petition.

The other demands include a mandatory 12 percent service charge, resort shares for workers as pledged by the president, and an 80 percent quota for Maldivians in the tourism industry.

Mauroof said TEAM will present the petition next week to the president’s office, the parliament, the tourism ministry, the economic ministry, the attorney general’s office and the youth ministry.

TEAM has previously warned of strikes if the government does not heed the demands.

About 50 resort workers joined the rally at the artificial beach today. Mauroof said TEAM was satisfied with the turnout and had not planned for most workers to take leave at the same time.

Protesters wore red T-shirts with the demands printed on the back and draped banners that read, “Sustainable tourism = living wage for tourism workers” and “Unfair dismissal = unfair tourism.”

“Our rights are being taken away. Resort owners discriminate between Maldivians and foreigners,” a resort worker at the rally, Abdulla Jaleel Ibrahim, told Minivan News.

“[Foreign workers] get leave to go visit their families whenever they want or to bring them to the resort with a holiday package, whereas local employees have to wait up to eight months even to get a leave. We are not allowed to bring our families there either.”

Adam Hamdhy, who has been working in the tourism industry for 13 years, said resort owners did not care about local staff employed in low paying jobs.

“They don’t care about how room boys and waiters may have to live. I am truly disappointed to note that local resort employees in higher positions are working against the TEAM’s campaign and their colleagues in lower positions,” he said.

Jumhooree Party MP Ali Hussain also attended the rally and encouraged the resort workers not to give up hope or lose focus.

Hussain vowed that he would submit legislation on industrial relations if the government does not heed the demand.

Deputy tourism minister Hussain Lirar previously told Minivan News that the government will consider the petition.

“The industry consists of a lot of stakeholders, not only TEAM. We will have to hold discussion with all of them before implementing new regulations,” he said.

The Maldives does not have a policy on minimum wage and setting one will require an amendment to the Employment Act. Current laws meanwhile require 50 percent of resort employees to be local, but the rule is not widely enforced.

Preliminary figures from the 2014 census indicated that foreign employees amount to 59 percent of all tourism employees, with 16,342 expatriate workers.

According to TEAM, US$358 million is transferred out of the country as wages for migrant workers annually.

Mauroof previously said that implementing the quota would help achieve the current administration’s pledge of creating 94,000 new jobs.

Providing shares in resorts to their rank-and-file employees was a campaign pledge of President Abdulla Yameen. Most resorts in the Maldives are owned by private companies and controlled by a few wealthy individuals.

In February 2014, President Yameen said that by the end of the year, a number of resorts would be floating a portion of their shares to the public, and urged Maldivian employees to become shareholders.

Last week, tourism minister Ahmed Adeeb said the government will announce a model for offering shares to workers before the end of the year.


Union leaders’ dismissal leads to staff arrests on Full Moon Sheraton

Four members of staff at Sheraton’s Full Moon resort in Kaafu Atoll were taken into police custody yesterday, following the refusal of three dismissed employees to leave the premises.

While the Tourism Employees Association of Maldives (TEAM) has said the individuals were dismissed due to their participation in Labour Day celebrations earlier this month, representatives of the resort have said the dismissals were preceded by “a number of incidents”.

“There is no freedom of association or freedom of speech in the Maldives, especially not in the tourism industry,” said TEAM Secretary General Mauroof Zakir.

Police have informed Minivan News that the staff members were arrested for obstructing police duty following a call from resort management yesterday afternoon.

Shumaes Rasheed, Marketing Communicating Manager at Full Moon, provided further details:

“As the associates refused to leave the island, Maldives Police Service were notified to assist them in escorting them off the island.”

“Another four associates were arrested by the police for obstruction in carrying out their duties, and these associates have also been dismissed,” added Shumaes, noting that the welfare of the guests had not been affected by the incident.

Zakir told Minivan News that those initially dismissed were “key trade union leaders” on the resort, who had been preparing to  enter collective bargaining with resort management.

Zakir said that the letter of termination issued to those dismissed referred to a gathering on May 1 during which the TEAM members decorated their association hut with banners calling for a minimum wage to US$600, improved freedom to speech, and other internationally recognised union rights.

“We cannot accept that, a wilful and peaceful gathering organised by the union is allowed in the ILO convention,” said Mauroof – noting that this was a convention to which the Maldives is a signatory.

The arrests followed a gathering by employees calling for their colleagues’ reinstatement,  into which police “immediately intervened”, said Mauroof. He suggested police had been on the island for a number of days as part of a pre-planned operation.

Yesterday’s unrest was the latest in a number of incidents of staff unrest among the workers in the country’s largest industry which contributes an estimated 80 percent to the country’s GDP.

Figures from the Tourism Ministry have today revealed arrival figures to have increased by 11.2 percent this year compared with the same point in 2013 – a year which saw a record 1.3 million tourists arrive in the country.

Rising number of incidents

“It is unlikely anything will come out of parliament that will give protection to the workers,” noted Mauroof, suggesting that concerted industrial action by the country’s 26,000 tourism workers may be the only way to improve workers rights. 25 percent of the 17th Majlis are themselves resort owners, he added.

Despite the political turmoil of recent years, the country’s primary industry has remained sacrosanct, with the Majlis even passing legislation prohibiting such acts.

The tourism boycott bill passed the house in October last year, making it illegal to call for a boycott, to support or endorse of a boycott, to participate in a tourism boycott, or any act that would incite fear amongst tourists.

Mauroof suggested that the rising frequency of unrest on resorts in recent months could be attributed to a combination of a rising cost of living in the country and greater awareness of workers’ rights.

Increasing “overuse” of the Freedom of Assembly Actmuch criticised since its introduction in 2012 – by authorities was also cited by the TEAM leader as cause for the dismissal of over 150 tourism employees.

“If the government has positive intentions to protect workers – things might change. Otherwise we will need some international leverage.”

Despite the general desire to separate the country’s primary source of income from its fractious politics, a number of resort workers have alleged in recent months that their dismissals were directly linked to the political leanings of their employers.

Both Gasim Ibrahim – owner of the Villa Group – and Ahmed Shiyam – owner of Sun Siyam Resorts –  have been accused of purging staff rosters of staff members aligned with opposition political groups. Gasim and Siyam are the leaders of the ruling coalition Jumhooree Party and Maldives Development Alliance (MDA), respectively.

Earlier this week, a small but vocal protest could be heard circling the capital Malé, with a lone demonstrator pleading with the MDA leader:

“Sun Travel, I’m begging you on my knees, don’t threaten your employees. Don’t force people into your party. Don’t do this.”

Last month it was revealed that police were investigating a threatening phone call allegedly made by Siyam to a former employee of Vilu Reef resort.

“Let me tell you, you don’t have any rights,” the Dhaal Meedhoo MP was heard to say. “If you try to harm my business I will destroy you.”


No staff complaints received following termination of Hilton management agreement: Tourism Ministry

The Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture has said it has “not officially” received complaints that staff at the Iru Fushi Resort in Noonu Atoll have faced alleged political harassment after the property’s owners terminated a management agreement with Hilton.

Deputy Tourism Minister Mohamed Maleeh Jamal told Minivan News this week that while the tourism ministry closely monitored working standards and staff treatment across the industry, it had not been informed of any concerns so far resulting from the change in management at the resort on May 1.

Despite the claims, the Tourism Employees Association of Maldives (TEAM) said an official letter had been sent to the Tourism Ministry last week raising concerns over allegations that employees were facing intimidation over their political beliefs from fellow staff and management at the Iru Fushi Resort.

The allegations of harassment were said by the trade union to have intensified since local company Sun Tour and Travels opted to terminate Hilton’s management of the site at the beginning of the month – adding no official response had been received from the Tourism Ministry.

Sun Travel and Tours, which is owned and operated by local businessman and media magnate MP Ahmed Shiyam, announced May 1 that it was terminating Hilton’s agreement to manage the Noonu Atoll-based resort.  No reason has so far been given by the resort owner for the termination despite repeated requests for an interview by Minivan News.

“The cessation of Hilton Worldwide’s management of that resort was unforeseen and due to factors outside its control,” the hotel chain said in an official statement following the termination.

Sources on the resort, speaking to Minivan News on condition of anonymity, have previously accused Sun Tours of allowing MP Shiyam’s Maldives Development Alliance (MDA) to offer jobs at the site exclusively to its supporters, while also threatening and harassing staff with differing political view points.

“When Hilton was here, there was freedom to talk about politics, whatever party you supported,” an employee at the resort claimed earlier this month. “No one was holding campaigns here for parties or anything, but now just talking about politics is a problem. This has happened recently.”

The same staff member at the time accused certain employees of acting as “MDA spies” for MP Shiyam’s political party, leading to fears about job prospects at the site for those with differing political views.

“People are really afraid to talk here now. We know that some people here represent the MDA [party] and we have heard them warn others ‘we have the power now’ – these are words they are using,” the source claimed. “We do not have job security right now.”

The resort is now being run as the Maldives Iru Fushi Resort and Spa.

MP Shiyam had his phone switched off at time of press, while company spokesperson Mohamed Hameed was out of the country when contacted by Minivan News.

Inspection process

Deputy Minister Maleeh said that tourism authorities had not been “officially” made aware of the allegations raised by Iru Fushi staff, adding that from the ministry’s experience, the vast majority of the country’s resort workers and management were all working together to benefit the wider industry.

“If there is an issue, we will go and inspect resorts and make sure staff are being treated in line within the stipulated requirements,” he said.

Maleeh said that various conditions and standards concerning treatment of resort staff were outlined by ministry regulations such as the number of toilets being provided to employees and their living arrangements.  Maleeh added that a large number of operators complied with these practices.

“Some resorts currently even provide a staff pool,” he said.

Maleeh said that while the tourism ministry was able to carry out inspections of resorts where there were reported staff issues, it had not been given any information that wuld require it to carry out such checks at the Iru Fushi resort.

He added that in the case of a management termination, the ministry itself looked to avoid involvement in cases involving two private parties in the country unless there was deemed to be a significant contractual issue.

“Even then, a contract like this is normally governed by international law or arbitration anyway,” Maleeh added.

Hilton has meanwhile said earlier this month that discussions were continuing with Sun Travels over the decision to abruptly terminate its agreement, though no further details were being provided by the company at present.

Despite the decision by Sun Travels to terminate Hilton’s management contract for Iru Fushi, the hotel giant still presently operates the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island resort in the Maldives for a different company.

Attractive destination

Maleeh claimed that the Maldives ultimately still remained a very attractive destination for multinational hotel chains and boutique hospitality groups alike, adding that the ministry had received “no complaints” regarding their treatment in the country.

“The reason that the Maldives is so popular is not only is it a place where contracts are known to be honoured, but it also offers a return on investment that is very strong,” he said.

The deputy minister said that there continued to provide a very favourable investment climate for hospitality companies.

Maleeh said that upon returning from a recent visit to the Arabian Hotel Investment Conference that took place earlier this month in Dubai, there remained a strong interest and appetite for emerging hospitality groups to enter the Maldives tourism industry.

The Maldives already has 100 exclusive island resorts being operated in the country by both local and multinational companies.

However, TEAM Secretary General Mauroof Zakir has told Minivan News he that the trade union remained concerned at the response of tourism authorities in the country to complaints raised by staff following the termination of Hilton’s agreement.

Zakir said that after having submitted an official letter to the tourism ministry earlier this month, no response had yet been received over its concerns.

Just last week, TEAM alleged it had received received information that management had been hiring  local MDA members to replace staff members who resigned since the change in management.

Zakir added that he had also been informed by various members of staff that Sun Travels had since brought in a number of experienced managers from its wider resort operations to ensure the property was being run more smoothly on the back of alleged difficulties following the changeover.

“Things seem to be much more under control at the site now, staff told me,” he said last week.

However, Zakir has continued to maintain that there was concerns that authorities were failing to properly review the nature of the resort termination and its impact on staff as a result of political influence.