Employers facing investigation after 75 expatriates detained for illegally working in market

The Maldives Department of Immigration and Emigration has detained 75 illegal workers this week, and is currently investigating how many are victims of corrupt employment practices.

An immigration official, who asked not to be identified, said an unspecified number of the 75 expatriate workers detained in Male’ on Tuesday (June 4) had already been released as authorities sought to clarify the exact reasons for how they had ended up working in the capital’s market area.

Foreign nationals are not permitted under Maldives law to work at the market area, according to the Immigration Department.

Despite this, a total of 57 foreign workers were seized by authorities in April this year after having been found working at the market area of Male’.

A police media official confirmed yesterday (June 5) that officers had assisted in detaining 75 “illegal aliens” from the local market area of Male’, referring all further enquiries to the country’s immigration service, which has taken responsibility for the workers.

Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali was not responding to calls from Minivan News at time of press to confirm how many of the detained foreigners were presently expected to be sent to the department’s “processing centre” – a gated compound on the island of Hulhumale’.  Unregistered expatriates are usually kept at the centre before being sent back to their respective countries.

Immigration Department Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Abdullah Munaaz – charged with overseeing the service’s monitoring and repatriation efforts – has meanwhile said that authorities were expecting to decide within the next 48 hours how many of the 75 expatriates may face deportation. With investigations ongoing into the case, he said that no further details on the detained workers could be made public at present, with an official announcement expected in the next few days.

The Maldives has come under increasing pressure to tackle the issue of unregistered expatriates, with the country appearing on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking.  The country has appeared on the list for three years in a row.

Immigration Controller Dr Ali has previously told Minivan News that while almost all foreign workers coming to the Maldives arrive under registered companies, some were finding themselves “illegally used” by employers due to “systematic abuse” of the visa system.

Earlier this year, the Immigration Department confirmed that authorities had targeted the return of 10,000 unregistered workers by the end of the year.

This pledge to return a predetermined number of expatriates was criticised at the time by the Human Rights Commission of Maldives (HRCM), which raised concerns that some workers were being punished for the actions of employers and agents acting outside the law.

Worker release

The immigration source claimed that the country’s expatriate monitoring service was in the process of trying to individually identify whether the detained workers should be released, or deported.

The source said all those detained had not been registered to work in the market area, although some were suspected of being illegally made to do so by their legal employers.

“The paperwork is being done now to try to identify the people who are being put to work at these places by their employers,” the Immigration Department figure added. “These people are working in places where they are not registered to do so and we need to know why is this happening. Some of the employers are giving [the department] a different story to those provided by the expatriates.”

The anonymous source said that authorities would also be looking to take action against employers who may be supplying illegal labour.

The same source has claimed that the majority of the 75 detained workers were suspected of having absconded illegally from their Maldivian employer to seek better paid work elsewhere in the country.

Late last month, Immigration Department CEO Munaaz said his department had recently become aware of individuals posing as recruitment agents who were travelling to airports to poach foreign workers by promising them resort positions or higher pad jobs than the work they may have originally been brought to the country for.  Whether these jobs really exist is unknown.

“Now we have started to identify how this is being done and we are working to stop this,”Munaaz said at the time. “We know there are agents living here in Male’, some who are foreign nationals from the same countries, and they are bringing people over. We are in the process of breaking these rings.”

Foreign low-wage workers are often lured to the country by such brokers, paying a ‘recruitment’ fee or entering into debt – sometimes as high as several thousand dollars – that is shared between local agents and recruiters in the country of origin, most significantly Bangladesh.

In many cases the workers are then brought into the country ‘legitimately’ by a specially-created paper company, created using the ID of a complicit or unwitting Maldivian national, for the stated purpose of working on a ‘construction project’ of dubious existence.

Senior immigration sources have confided to Minivan News that almost no human verification was undertaken by authorities to ensure workers were genuinely employed once a business or construction project was approved.

Moreover, despite the size and scale of the practice, not a single recruitment agent or labour trafficker has appeared before a Maldivian court.

Human trafficking

While the government earlier this year launched a special campaign intended to raising awareness of the rights of foreign workers, NGOs and institutions continue to identify human trafficking as a significant issue needing to be addressed in the country.

Human rights groups in the Maldives have for instance continued to criticise the present and former governments for failing to pass legislation that would allow authorities to press charges against individuals directly for the offence of human trafficking.  The legal measures to do so are presently under review in parliament.

In February, former President Maldives Association of Construction Industry (MACI) Mohamed Ali Janah claimed that 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.

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Maldives no longer “tolerable” for foreign doctors, expatriate medical officer claims

Expatriate medical professionals working in the Maldives regularly face intimidation, fraud and “substandard” treatment from patients, health authorities, local staff and the country’s courts, a foreign medical officer working in the country has revealed.

The expatriate medical professional, who has worked in several posts across the country since 2009, revealed that along with widespread reneging on contracts and failing to deal with intimidation of expatriate medical staff, health officials had, in certain cases, not even checked whether foreign doctors were registered to practice medicine.

“Earlier there was a system of asking doctors for the registration of their basic medical degree (graduation degree) in their own country so as to register them in Maldives,” he told Minivan News. “This law was so compromised over the last two years that in one atoll alone, four unregistered doctors are to my knowledge still practising their absent skills here. Frankly speaking, they can kill anybody just by their lack of knowledge, but some get caught on occasion.”

Medical authorities have claimed they were aware of a number of concerns regarding doctor registration, a situation currently being reviewed in conjunction with the Maldives Medical Council. However, the Ministry of Health and Family denied that a fall in the number of doctors coming from India to practice in the Maldives was related to alleged treatment by authorities and patients on islands – instead noting improved pay rates currently offered in their home country.

However, raising concerns over a “deterioration” in the quality of healthcare being provided in some atolls during the last two years, the expatriate medical officer – who asked not to be identified – also detailed a number of issues over the treatment of foreign workers in the country.

According to the whistle-blower, there were growing concerns among skilled expatriates working in medicine and education in the Maldives that was losing the country its reputation as a “tolerable working place”.

Fewer doctors from India were coming to the Maldives year-on-year, the source observed, in part to what he called “public intolerance” of an imported non-Muslim work force.

“The overall behaviour of the Maldives Ministry of Health and Family and government has been negative. [There is also] an lack of availability of US dollars and the Bank of Maldives (BML) has banned issuing international ATM cards to expatriates,” he said. “Meanwhile, there has been an increase in the exchange rate of the US dollar, but no increase in the salary structure in Maldivian rufiya (MVR), meaning salaries are less than before. There are also instances in which the lawlessness of this country has led to the lack of punishment of Maldivian nationals even for heinous crimes like rape if the victim is an expatriate.”

“Violence”

Taking the example of Gaafu Alif (GA) Atoll, where the medical professional has had experience of working, he alleged “constant fear” and intimidation were regularly experienced by foreign healthcare professionals.

“Increasing instances of violence against expatriates is being reported from everywhere in Maldives,” he said.

On the island of GA Villingili, the medical professional claimed that one paediatrician from Pakistan working on the island was physically assaulted after failing to provide a referral letter demanded by some of his patients.

“I myself was on duty, so we had to make the legal documents for him. Afterwards nothing happened and [the doctor] left after just two days without the intention of continuing their contract. [The doctor] is still working in the Maldives, but somewhere else now,” he said.

“[Another doctor] from Uzebikstan also left GA Atoll because some local teenagers beat her two children. The matter became worse when she and her husband reacted with anger towards these boys. People were singing ‘We will kill you…’ on the roads whenever they came out. Ultimately [the doctor] requested for a transfer and is now working in Faafu Nilandhoo Atoll.”

The medical officer added that from his own experiences, skilled expatriate workers across the Maldives faced intimidation and sexual harassment on the islands, with cases such as expatriate teachers having to defend themselves in their own homes.

“I myself have heard some patients calling me or my colleagues their servants and threatening to do what he/she tells to, or else,” he said. “Interestingly, local staff never help in these situation a because they think we they will not be affected much because we don’t know Dhivehi. The situation becomes much more painful as many of us understand the language quite well. These are just glimpses only. And only of [GA] Atoll. Imagine what will happen if we collect together all the things which have gone wrong across the Maldives.”

The medical professional claimed there were also concerns about how authorities were treating doctors in the country, particularly in regards to contractual obligations such as agreements on wages and accommodation.

According to the source, a number of doctors had shared concerns about amendments made to their contractual agreements without their consent or knowledge once they arrive in the country – both in terms of salary and housing.

“When a doctor lands in Male’, only then [do authorities] reveal to him or her that actually this offer letter is an old one and now the salary structure is a little different. It is always like that. So many times they have done it that now people know about it unofficially and openly and make fun of it,” he claimed.

“Authorities write in their offer letter about free residence while working here. It is mentioned in this form of providing free residence or as much rufiya through a housing allowance, plus their people will help you find a place. They don’t, of course,” he said.

The medical officer claimed that he was personally provided with a housing allowance of MVR 3,000 ruifiya (US$195), assistance in finding accommodation had not been given.

However even upon finding accommodation, a former expatriate paediatrician from South Asia, who was living and working in GA atoll, was alleged to have been evicted from a property on one island by its owners with less than 24 hours notice after they found a tenant willing to pay better rent for the accommodation. The doctor left the island he was assigned after a month and a half due to being unable to find accommodation.

The medical officer added that authorities were ultimately failing to support skilled expatriate workers in favour of local staff who often had no medical or management training.

“It is an everyday story in this hospital and everywhere else in Maldives. Even at Indira Gandhi Memorial Hosptial (IGMH) [in Male’],” he claimed. “Far lower qualified local staff are working with a salary on par with far better qualified expatriate staff, and doing nothing on duty. It frustrates expatriates every single minute. It is not justifiable but local administration support it.”

The expatriate healthcare worker pointed to his own experiences in an atoll hospital, where he claimed trained nurses were having to clean the nappies of elderly patients due to the refusal of local sanitation staff – known as sweepers – to do so.

“This work is for local sweepers, but they often refuse to do it, forcing the staff nurses through equally arrogant management to perform the actions,” he claimed. “They don’t understand that a staff nurse, who has to administer injections and medicines to patients, will get their dress soiled by the excrement if they clean the stool of these patients, and in turn some patient only is going to receive it in returb as a hospital born infection.”

Healthcare provision

Beyond the treatment of expatriate health professionals, the medical officer highlighted a number of concerns about the operations of the nation’s hospitals, such as the impact of the launch earlier this year of the Aasandha universal health scheme.

The medical officer claimed that Aasandha had in fact led to a growing trend of pharmacies bringing in low cost “garbage” medicine to the country, on the grounds that the Aasandha budget was insufficient to acquire medicines from what the medical officer called “standard companies”.

“This in turn is is playing with the health of people by bringing introducing antibiotic resistance or uncompensated chronic diseases due to irregular and uncontrolled dosing of drugs,” he said.

“With the pricing of drugs, we write the number of tablets to be 12. The pharmacy gives seven or eight. Patients don’t know about these things. And as a result they come back to us with partial recovery and antibiotic resistance.”

The medical officer said that in order to try and overcome the limitation, doctors were having to recommend larger prescriptions to ensure a sufficient number of tablets were provided by the pharmacy, before asking patients to return to them to amend the amount they should be taking.

“This way the patient gets the needed amount of medicine, the dosing of which I correct myself after calling him/her back to me with the medicines. This practice is risky but at least I succeeded in managing my patients successfully,” he said.

According to the medical officer another key problem with Aasandha was the lack of public understanding concerning the scheme and entitlements of the public.

“They become very angry when we tell them that this or that medical condition is not covered by Aasandha. A lot of times they force the management to force us to fabricate a medical condition just to get Aasandha approval,” he revealed.

Soon after the scheme had been launched in January this year, Health Minister Dr Ahmed Jamsheed – then Chief Operating Officer at Male’s ADK hospital – said limited information on Aasandha’s financial structure had led the public to exaggerate their medical needs. He urged for a greater sense of public responsibility to prevent overwhelming the country’s health service.

However, calls to limit Aassandha have so far proved divisive in parliament and the present coalition government. Ahmed Thasmeen Ali, head of the government-aligned Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), has previously been an outspoken critic of limiting the provision of universal healthcare at private premises.

The medical officer added that national healthcare provision had also been affected by the launch during the previous government of seven provincial health corporations designed to try and decentralise health care and budgets.

According to the expatriate medical officer, the establishment of the corporations was seen as an attempt by the former government to ensure the work of the Health Ministry was being controlled by government rather than opposition supporters already working within healthcare.

“Splitting the [work] of the Health Ministry into corporations was not a bad idea although it was more motivated by ability to acquire financial control rather than anything else,” he claimed. “The local governance had one thing positive; we could at least address our problems with our employers easily. They were accessible. Although they seldom made any difference, at least there was no frustration that I could not even talk to the authorities. Nowadays, no one can talk to the Mnistry of Health people as most of the time either they simply don’t pick the phone or you cannot connect to them.”

The medical officer said a growing sense of frustration and the shared of experiences of expatriates and healthcare professionals from across the South Asia region had seen the Maldives’ reputation as place to practice medicine tarnished in recent years.

“All these stories do reach [places like] India and I don’t feel that people will tolerate this much more. That’s why there is a constant decline in the number of people coming from somewhere like India to work here in whatever form,” he observed.

Indian High Commission concerned

Earlier this year, Indian High Commissioner Dynaneshwar Mulay raised concerns over the treatment of expatriates from across the South Asia region – particularly by the country’s police and judiciary.

Mulay claimed that alongside concerns about the treatment of some Indian expatriates in relation to the law, there were significant issues relating to “basic human rights” that needed to be addressed concerning immigrant workers from countries including Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Addressing the claims, Zaufishaan Abdulla Kamaludeen, Director of Human Resources for the Health Services Corporations, which is currently run under the Ministry of Health, said that while expatriate doctors had traditionally been sourced from India, it had become increasingly difficult to bring them to the Maldives.

Kamaludeen stressed that this change appeared mainly to be a result of more competitive rates of pay for medical staff in India compared to the Maldives

“There have been spikes in the salary packages being offered to doctors from India. This is maybe a reason why since about March 2012, when I joined the Health Ministry, we have been having difficulty getting Indian doctors to work here,” she claimed. “We have been getting many applications from doctors from Pakistan,” she added, stressing that medical personnel were also being sourced from countries like Myanmar to cover demand in the country.

Kamaludeen added that it was traditionally difficult to place expatriate doctors on islands in the country’s outer atolls, a situation he claimed was complicated by the tendency of healthcare professionals to network about their experiences.

However, she denied that the difficulties and complaints recevied staff were a result of intimidation or the attitudes of local staff and patients to foreign workers. Kamaludeen claimed that requests for transfers for most often related to “personal issues”.

“Mainly we get requests for transfer from islands relating to personal problems. These vary on a number of issues such as the availability of vegetarian food,” she claimed. “We also get requests from doctors wishing to work close with other doctors, so they don’t feel isolated on arrival.”

Kamaludeen added that another challenge with placing doctors had come from the set up of certain health corporations to pay skilled medical staff more than if they worked in another region.

“Doctors at times would demand to work for the corporations offering the highest pay,” she said. “Right now, a board has been established to try and harmonise salaries for staff working in different atolls.”

Addressing allegations that there had been issues with the registration of some expatriate medical staff to practice in the Maldives, Kamaludeen said that the ministry had been made aware of instances of doctors working with improper registration.

However, she said that in such cases the Maldives Medical Council had been immediately informed and a review was presently taking place on the issue.

Kamaudeen claimed the issue appeared to have arisen over a lack of awareness of the type of licensing required to practice n the Maldives.

“We have understood this to the result of a lack of information being provided from recruitment groups and agencies,” she said.

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