Corrupt immigration practices, unregulated agencies fueling migrant worker abuse

Corrupt immigration practices and the use of unregulated employment agencies by private and state employers are limiting efforts to curb abuse of migrant workers and prevent illegal practices such as retaining staff passports, a Maldivian trade union has alleged.

The Tourism Employees Association of Maldives (TEAM) has claimed that while companies are not permitted to retain the passports of foreign workers, some hospitality operators – as well as unregulated third party agencies and government ministries – are still keeping employee travel documents without consent.

The comments were made as a source with knowledge of the current immigration system 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.

The source, who wished to remain anonymous, said despite improvements late last year among some state employers, the issue still needed significant work from government and private enterprise if it was to be resolved.

Last year, the Department of Immigration and Emigration issued a notice (Dhivehi) expressing concern at the rising numbers of undocumented workers in the country, and set out a revised visa system to try and combat potential people trafficking.

The document included a clause stating that under no circumstances should a passport or travel documents be possessed by anyone other than the rightful owner, and threatened legal action against anyone found to have infringed these rights on the grounds of human trafficking.  An unofficial translation can be read here.

Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali was not responding to calls from Minivan News at time of press.

In October last year, a senior Indian diplomatic official expressed concern over the ongoing practice of confiscating passports of migrant workers arriving to the country from across South Asia – likening the practice to slavery.

Tourism workers

With the tourism industry one of the largest employers in the Maldives, TEAM Secretary General Mauroof Zakir alleged that relevant authorities in the country were either not able, or unwilling, to address abuse of foreigners.

“The issue of abuse of migrant workers is not being addressed by concerned authorities very much. We have a corrupted Immigration Department that is not able to handle these issues,” he said.

According to Mauroof, the practice of resort operators keeping worker passports was a “complicated issue” due to the common practice of outsourcing the hiring of foreign staff to agencies. He contended that a number of resorts and hotel operators were either keeping passports of staff themselves, or doing so through third party employment agents.

“Passports are being kept, often for stupid reasons. While passports should not be kept by employees, I am sure companies are doing this anyway,” he said.

Mauroof claimed that even this week, TEAM had received complaints that one multi-national hotel operator in Maldives was insisting on retaining the passports of its foreign staff, in some cases against their wishes.

Mauroof also criticised the use of third party employment agencies in particular, alleging that by relying on unscrupulous labour suppliers, resorts risked inadvertently hiring illegal workers.

“One complaint we received involved a resort paying a group of migrant workers US$100 as a monthly basic salary,” he claimed, adding that this did not include service charge payments.

A common human rights abuse involved the housing of foreign staff in substandard conditions. In one example, a group of labourers from Bangladesh were not provided with a toilet in their accommodation, forcing them to use the facilities at nearby mosques.

According to Mauroof, although TEAM’s constitution did allow for foreign workers to become members, only a small number of migrant employees had so far joined the union.

TEAM said it was at present handling three cases relating to the treatment of foreign staff.

With a majority of the country’s tourism workforce made up of foreign staff, Mauroof expressed concern that a large number of immigrant workers could see their basic rights infringed by employers with no realistic chance of seeking legal redress.

Societal attitude

A source with knowledge of the Department of Immigration’s work over the last several years said that while employers, including government ministries, had stepped up efforts to cease retaining passports, it would take “some time” before the issue was resolved.

The source claimed that the practice of retaining passports had been part of the employment culture in the Maldives for a long time, and that changing wider societal attitudes was challenging.

“Withholding passports infringes the basic rights of workers. We are talking about someone’s identity here. Addressing the matter is also the first step in working to prevent human trafficking,” the source claimed. “[Retaining passports] has been part of the culture here for a long time – the Education Ministry and Tourism Ministry have all done this. Keeping passports has been practised since foreign experts began coming to the Maldives.”

The source told Minivan News that the Department of Immigration and Emigration has sent “numerous memos” against the practice of retaining passports, but alleged that certain agencies favoured keeping worker documentation to better manipulate them.

“This is a common practice seen all over the world. But it creates major problems. If a foreigner wishes to go to law enforcement agencies for assistance, they will be asked to identify themselves with a passport,” the source said.

Third party agencies appeared to want to keep the passports to be able to “manipulate” foreign workers for their own financial advantage, the source explained.

“I do not believe that people are aware [keeping passports] is such a bad thing. Big companies, government employers and resort companies are all known to have done it,” the source claimed. “There has been an improvement that we have seen since late 2012 towards stopping the retention of passports. We have talked with government ministries and tried to resolve the matter, however when passports are being kept for visa processing they are not always returned.  This is a big challenge for employees in the outer atolls.”

The same source stressed that while ministries were showing improvements in returning passports to foreign workers, it may take “some time” till the matter was addressed properly.

Minivan News understands at present that the Department of Immigration is temporarily unable to renew work visas for expatriates, and is instead providing a three month extension period to foreign workers as a stop-gap measure. The temporary measures were imposed as a result of ongoing disputes over the controversial implementation of a new border control system provided by Malaysia-based IT firm, Nexbis.

Sources within the immigration department warned Minivan News that the country could have to resort to a “a pen and paper system” for monitoring immigration if the country’s courts approve a parliament vote to scrap the Nexbis deal, without providing an adequate replacement.

Resort challenges

Several resort operators in the Maldives, speaking on condition of anonymity, said while they did not use employment agencies themselves, the level of bureaucracy faced in hiring staff – especially for properties far from Male’ – did sometimes require third party assistance.

The general manager of one resort told Minivan News that the property had its own HR department to obtain documentation for its foreign employees, rather than relying on a third party.

“We do all the application processes ourselves and we have staff passports here in a fire-proof safe,” he claimed. “Staff can have these documents back whenever they request them.  If they do not want to be here, they are welcome to leave.”

Despite having opted against the use of employment agencies, the general manager added that, particularly for resorts in the country’s outer atolls where travel to the capital was difficult, some hospitality operators had little choice but to turn to employment agencies.

“In their defence, the state uses such a bureaucratic system that the government plays a part in these problems,” he claimed. “They have to simplify the [visa application] process. I would say some 70 percent of the rules they have are a joke.”

Another multi-national resort operator with properties across the Maldives confirmed that it did make use of some employment agencies, but favoured sourcing staff either internally from other operations, or from local islands. A source from the resort stressed that in the two years they had worked at the property, they had received no complaints concerning employment agencies they had used to bring in foreign workers.

Blue Ribbon Campaign

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs earlier this month inaugurated an initiative targeted at raising awareness of the human trafficking issue in the Maldives.

Entitled ‘Blue Ribbon Campaign Against Human Trafficking’, the strategy is expected to include activities to try and raise awareness among students and the business community.

The Foreign Ministry announced that it had signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with multiple local media outlets in the country as part of the campaign’s aim to raising awareness of human trafficking and other related issues.

The Maldives has come under strong criticism internationally in recent years for the prevalence of people trafficking, and the  country has appeared on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking for three years in a row.

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Comment: New regulation on strikes lacks legality and would wipe out resort workers’ constitutional rights

Citizens in Maldives have recently won important rights. The 2008 constitution guarantees fundamental rights, such as freedom of speech and association. The constitution also guarantees the right to strike, which is an extremely important right for workers. Without the right to strike workers are left powerless. In dictatorships like Saudi Arabia or Burma, the denial of the right to strike is a key weapon in suppressing democracy.

However, it seems that employers in the Maldives, unsatisfied with workers finally having human and labour rights, are doing their best to convince the government to effectively deny those rights.

This has come to light with regard to a draft Ministerial regulation on strikes dated August 11, 2010. The working draft looks to have been written as a birthday present for the resort owners, so one-sided it effectively nullifies workers’ constitutional right to strike.

Does the Minister have the authority to make a regulation on strikes?

Before examining the details of the draft regulation, there is an even more glaring error: it is doubtful that the Minister actually has the authority to make the regulation under the present law.

The first clause of the working draft notes that the regulation is made according to clause 89 of the Employment Act of 2008. That clause states: “Unless otherwise provided in this Act, regulations required to administer this Act shall be made by the Minister.”

What is crucial in this clause is the phrase “administer this Act”. That means regulations can only to be made for matters that the Act has defined, thus regulates and thus are in need of administering.

The Employment Act is concerned with the conditions and regulations of workplaces and the contract relationships for the provision of labour which exist between an individual (a worker) and an employer (which might be a person or a firm). The Act also covers the individual’s entitlements (such as maternity leave, working hours etc).

However, the Employment Act does not mention anything to do with the collective rights of workers in employment or their regulation (such as rules regarding trade union rights in the workplace or trade union recognition).

Chapter 4 of the Act (“employment agreement”) does not mention collective agreements which would be signed by a trade union and an employer. The entire chapter concerns the employment of individuals.

Article 30 of the Constitution of Maldives guarantees the right to form trade unions, yet nowhere in the entire Act are trade unions mentioned. The closest the Act comes is in Clause 21(b)(vi) where discrimination against a worker (as an individual) for membership or activity in a “workers’ association” is declared unlawful.

The Act does not mention fundamental matters related to workers’ collective rights and employment such as trade union recognition, collective bargaining, collective agreements or industrial disputes.

As such, a question must be raised: how can a strike, which like all forms of industrial action by workers is a collective act, be administered by Ministerial regulation when the Act does not address the collective rights and acts of workers or trade unions?

The proposed regulation actually has nothing to do with the Employment Act at present. It is almost certainly unconstitutional. The only way a regulation might be appropriate would be if there were already chapters and clauses in the Employment Act dealing with the collective rights of workers and trade unions.

Wiping out the right to strike

As for the details of the regulation itself these would effectively mean that workers would have no ability to conduct a legal strike. Workers would be completely at the whim of the employer.

Clause 6 of the draft regulation would make it almost impossible for workers to reach a stage where they could go on strike. The regulation provides only an example of a Grievance Procedure, thus making the procedure voluntary. How such a Grievance Procedure is to be put in place and how it would work is left completely undefined. Employers are under no legal obligation to include good faith mechanisms or rights protections.

Given current employment practices in Maldives, workers could simply be dragged endlessly through a procedure which is designed not to produce a result and thus not arrive at any point where a strike could be called.

The regulation contains a stunning contradiction. The regulation defines a strike as “stopping work” yet Clause 8(c) forbids strikers “from disturb[ing] the services they provide or should not create any kind of difficulties in the mean[s] of strike.” This clause actually means workers cannot stop work, since by definition, when workers strike, they are withholding their labour and thus disturbing the services of the workplace.

Take the resorts: would a striking front-desk worker still required to check-in guests? Would a striking chef still be required to cook meals? Would a striking house-cleaner still be required to make beds? With this the employer could easily claim any strike is a disruption and thus the strike would be illegal.

This same vagueness is repeated in Clause 11(iv) of the regulations which forbids workers from “interfere[ing] with customers”. This is extraordinarily vague and would allow any employer to simply claim: by going on strike workers are “interfering” with customers and the strike would be deemed illegal.

Clause 9 of the regulation includes a number of professions who are excluded from the right to strike. International labour standards as governed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) are quite clear that with the exception of police and military, all other professions should retain the right to strike. It is doubtful that a regulation excluding so many professions would be acceptable under international human rights norms.

What to do?

It seems that this regulation, even if the Minister were to sign it, despite its clear breach of most international norms regarding workers fundamental rights, would have to ultimately be declared unconstitutional.

The Employment Act, does not give the Minister any authority to make regulations for matters not covered by the Act. Since strikes are a subset of workers’ collective rights and regulations to these rights are not mentioned in the Act, the Minister has no authority to make regulations to administer non-existent sections of the Act.

It is time for a serious rethink. Resort and hotel workers, in fact all workers, in the Maldives need a proper law which protects their collective rights to participate in trade unions, to collective bargaining and to industrial action. It solves nothing when short-cuts which must ultimately be found unconstitutional are tried.

Moreover, this regulation tramples on workers constitutional right to strike to such an extent it could become an international issue, placing Maldives in breach of its human rights commitments and the conventions of the International Labour Organisation.

The real reason that this regulation is being rushed through at this time is the resort owners in Maldives have consistently refused to recognise the collective rights of resort workers. Low wages, lack of transparency with distribution of the service charge, overwork and the high costs of living all remain unresolved problems for most workers.

Instead of engaging in genuine negotiations to resolve these matters with the Tourism Employees Assosiation of the Maldives (TEAM) – the resort workers union – the employers seek to rebuff TEAM at every opportunity.

TEAM is systematically denied recognition by the employers. The employers refuse to negotiate collectively and threaten workers. Workers are arrested and placed in jail at the behest of employers when they strike. Blacklists of known supporters of TEAM are maintained and distributed among employers. Despite these threats workers continue to exercise their constitutional right to strike because this is the only choice they have to resolve their interests. All other avenues are closed by the employers.

The best solution would be for the Government of Maldives to call for tripartite negotiations including TEAM and MATI, designed to reach an agreement for amendments to the Employment Act regarding trade union recognition, collective bargaining and industrial disputes. Or to produce an Industrial Relations Act regarding these matters. This would protect workers’ rights and produce clear and transparent mechanisms to allow for proper negotiations between TEAM and the resort owners and thus go a long way to resolving the root cause of strikes in the resort industry.

But a regulation with dubious constitutionality that effectively erases the right strike is in no one’s interests and will only harm Maldives’ international reputation in regard to democracy and human rights.

Dr Jasper Goss is Information and Research Officer with the Asia/Pacific regional organisation of the International Union of Foodworkers (IUF), the global trade union federation which represents resort, hotel, food and agriculture workers.

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]


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DQP submits bill on industrial action: two days notice required for strikes

The Dhivehi Qaumee Party (DQP) has submitted a bill to parliament regulating industrial action conducted by employees in the Maldives.

If passed, the bill requires employees to give 48 hours notice to employers before protesting, and restricts the timing of strikes to between 8:00am and 4:00pm.

“The employees can only boycott their work for a specified duration. For instance, for 24 or 48 hours,” DQP Deputy Leader and MP Riyaz Rasheed explained to newspaper Miadhu.

The bill comes a week after strike action at Kurumba Maldives led to the evacuation of guests and the arrest of 19 staff by police for intimidation and vandalism.

A statement by the resort’s parent company, Universal Enterprises, deplored the action and alleged strike organisers “sent employees armed with makeshift weapons to blockade the main kitchen and physically threaten staff serving meals to guests”.

The Kurumba strike was the most recent of several resort strikes this year. In April staff at the Shangri-La Villingili Resort went on strike after four workers were dismissed for allegedly playing on a PlayStation in a vacant villa, while in February staff at the Centara Grand Island Resort in North Ari Atoll held a strike complaining they were not receiving the service charges agreed to them by management.

Shangri-La Villingili eventually dismissed the 10 strike leaders and invited the remaining staff to return to work, while  Centara Grand increased the service charge allocated to staff after a representative from Ministry of Human Resources visited the island.

As most resorts operate on privately-owned islands, the nature of the sector makes the legality of industrial action contentious – while the Constitution provides the right to strike, workers cannot simply picket outside the factory gates and invariably protest on resort property, running into further conflict with management conscious of image in a highly service-oriented industry.

“MATI believes employees should not strike on resort [property] – this is the shop floor,” said Mohamed Ibrahim ‘Sim’ from the Maldives Association of Tourism Industry (MATI). “It has to be somewhere else. People do not understand that resort islands are standalone communities that must produce their own water and other amenities. A hotel in the city of Male’ does not face such disruption to essential services.”

Sim questioned the practicality of restricting  the hours of strike action, but acknowledged the bill’s objective of requiring notice for any stop-work action “and only after following established grievance procedures.”

Maldives Resort Workers (MRW), an active community of resort workers campaigning for fair treatment in the tourism industry, condemned the DQP bill as “effectively relegating protesting and demonstrations against working conditions in resorts to the era [of the former government].”

The introduction of a notice period would give employers “ample time to serve warning letters, suspensions, dismissals or anything to prevent a strike,” MRW claimed.

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“Shangri-La strike will not end soon” warns TEAM

The strike over the dismissal of 65 staff members at Shangri-La Villingili Resort in Addu Atoll is still going strong with 157 staff members joining the strike and the support of the Tourism Employment Association of the Maldives (TEAM).

The strike began on 14 April when four villa hosts were dismissed by the resort for locking themselves in an empty guest room to play PlayStation.

Sixty-one other staff members signed a petition to reinstate the four dismissed staff, but instead, they were all escorted by police to Feydhoo in Seenu Atoll and dismissed from their jobs.

Since the strike began, they have been  joined by another 110 other staff members as well as members of TEAM. Over 157 people are now protesting at Feydhoo, hoping the management of Shangri-La will reconsider their decision and reinstate the 65 staff.

But Vice President of TEAM Mauroof Zakir doesn’t think it will be over soon, saying “it might last for another week.”

“Management doesn’t want to change their decision,” he said, noting that the strike is still going strong and is “well organised.”

Zakir said the PlayStation was originally brought at a guest’s request, but the guest said something was wrong with the console. He said the four staff went into an empty guest room—noting all the rooms around it were empty “so there would be no disturbances”—and were checking the console.

“They acknowledged they started to play a football game for about 5 or 10 minutes,” Zakir said, but claimed the resort’s management did not deal with the situation “as they should have.”

“After 45 minutes, they had made their decision [to dismiss the villa hosts],” Zakir said.

He said a number of staff then went to the Human Resources department to demand resort management reinstate the four staff members, but management refused.

“We are still trying to negotiate with management,” Zakir said, “but they don’t want to negotiate with our demands.”

He said management then decided to fire everyone who had taken part in petitioning for the reinstatement of the four staff members, and called police to have all 65 staff escorted to nearby Feydhoo.

Shangri-La Villingili Resort
Shangri-La Villingili Resort

Zakir said the 65 dismissals were unlawful as staff were given no warning and no termination letter. He added that since the incident took place, they have been receiving informal messages from resort management that all staff who joined the protest will be fired, too.

“[Management] is still trying to protect their decision,” Zakir said, “they wanted to investigate the case but they don’t want to discuss it [with us].”

Zakir said the resort management was scheduled to have another meeting tomorrow and they were bringing in people from the company’s head office.

He added that the resort needed to not only reinstate all staff but also the trade union.

“Under the Constitution, we have the right to protest and freedom of association,” Zakir said.

He said because the Maldives is a member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), they had the right to form unions, and he said he hoped the ILO “might step in” and help resolve the situation.

“They won’t give up and neither will we,” Zakir stated.

Shangri-La’s Director for Communication Leslie Garcia said the resort is “running smoothly and operating as normal,” and added the investigation is currently ongoing.

She said management is “working closely with local government authorities” and was trying to solve the issue, but would not give any comments or details regarding the strike or what measures were being taken to resolve the problem.

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