Indian authorities report hundreds of workers forced from Maldives without wages

The Indian High Commission in Male’ has said it is aware of hundreds of cases over the last three months where its nationals have gone unpaid, before facing deportation or being forced to return home without their earnings.

State institutions and bodies including the country’s Labour Relations Authority (LRA), police, immigration officials and the foreign ministry have all been accused by the high commission of failing to fulfil their duties, and – in some cases – “deliberately encouraging” the mistreatment of foreign workers.

The concerns have been raised by Indian authorities after the Bangladesh government last week temporarily halted migration of its own nationals to work in the Maldives – unless accredited by the state – over fears they were becoming victims of a “section of unscrupulous recruiting agencies”.

In June, the Maldives was placed on the US State Department’s Tier Two Watch List for Human Trafficking for a fourth consecutive year – with the US State Department noting conditions of “fraudulent recruitment, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or nonpayment of wages, and debt bondage”.

Indian High Commission sources – citing the example of the Bangladesh Government – said that its own authorities should now consider similar intervention after increasing instances of workers being denied salaries and basic human rights.

“No employer can take a foreign national’s passport, yet this is happening. Some semi-literate workers who are here cannot draft letters or seek justice. Without pay they cannot go to the Civil Court,” said a commission source.

“So they are having to leave the country either with no salary, or instead compromising and getting just some of the money they are owed. Ultimately their employers just contact agents and then bring new workers to the country.”

Minivan News was last week shown several files containing correspondence by the Indian High Commission detailing its communications with Maldivian private employers who have not provided expatriates their wages, despite accepting that payments are owed to former Indian staff.

The majority of promises for financial reimbursement remain unfulfilled at time of press, with the employees in question having been forced to return home or turn to the high commission for food and support, Indian authorities have said.

Commission support

Indian nationals Santosh Kumar Ram and Harendra Kumar are the latest expatriates forced to leave the Maldives, after unsuccessfully pursuing months of unpaid wages that left them without food or income, and forced to beg their own government for financial support.

An official for the Indian High Commission said that the two men, who had both been in the Maldives since last year, had communicated their concerns on July 22, 2013, alleging they had not been paid by their employer for the final six months of their employment.

Despite the intervention of the high commission, both men – who had been staying in shelter provided by their employer – had been declared absconders by the state, resulting in them leaving the country this week as deportees. Their former employer, who denied responsibility for the two men, did provide return flights for the two Indian nationals, but declined to pay them the earnings claimed to be outstanding.

“This is completely unacceptable,” said a diplomatic source with knowledge of the case.

While provided shelter by their employer – who has denied ever employing Santosh Kumar Ram and Harendra Kumar – the two men have not been given food, relying instead on the commission to ensure they were fed.

The two men had previously sought support at the Department of Immigration and Emigration’s shelter for undocumented workers in Male’, opened this year as part of attempts to offer a more “humane” means of tackling the issue of unregistered foreign workers in the country.

However, the high commission said both expatriates were denied assistance at the shelter as their then-employer, despite not providing food, had given them accommodation.

In a similar case earlier this year, the Indian High Commission said another six of its nationals had been forced to leave the country without four months of salaries they were owed by their employer. The commission argued that they could not afford to remain in the country for ongoing legal action to claim their money.

In a letter seen by Minivan News, one employer said that delayed payments to the six workers was related to the “financial crises”, but promised the Indian High Commission the debt would be settled.

The six affected workers, since returned to India, are still waiting for their earnings at time of press.

High commission sources said that they had also been made aware of semi-literate foreign nationals being sent to other islands by their employers for non-existent work.  Once on another island, they were then being reported as having fled the company with whom they are registered for their visa.

Department of Immigration Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Abdullah Munaaz and Chief Superintendent of Immigration Zubair Muhammad were not responding to calls from Minivan News at time of press.

Minivan News was also awaiting a response from the Foreign Ministry at time of press over the high commission’s concerns.

“Systematic abuse”

Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed 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.

Foreign low-wage workers are often lured to the country by agents after 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.

The exact scale of the Maldives’ unregistered foreign workforce remains unknown, with estimates ranging from between around 40,000 people to potentially double that amount.

In April, Immigration Controller Dr Mohamed Ali confirmed that authorities had targeted the return of 10,000 unregistered workers by the end of the 2013.

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


Visa crisis hitting hiring and business, say resorts

Major resort operators in the Maldives have expressed serious concern with the country’s escalating visa crisis, claiming a failure to resolve the ongoing problems is leading to an inability to hire critical foreign personnel and stranding existing workers in the country.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, management for several exclusive resort properties in the Maldives expressed alarm that inefficiencies processing visas were not only preventing the hiring of foreign workers, but also preventing staff from being able to leave the country.

These concerns were aired as the Department of Immigration expressed confidence it would be able to clear a backlog of visa documentation for foreign workers, during an 11 day period in which it would not be accepting new applications.

Immigration authorities said the halt was necessary to improve service by clearing a backlog of documents uploaded online, however multiple resorts accused the department of being “inefficient” and “sporadic”.

A senior representative for one multinational group operating properties across the country said the company’s human resources team had raised issues with immigration not accepting visa applications between August 8 to August 18.

The source said the concerns reflected a wider problem with hiring foreign staff. The company said the delays had forced it to delay hiring vital staff, which was impacting the guest experience.

The general manager of another exclusive resort agreed that a failure to address ongoing problems obtaining visas for foreign nationals remained a “real issue”.

“We have staff members whose visas have now expired who cannot leave the country for various reasons such as annual leave, and sometimes really serious issues,” the manager said.

The source claimed that services provided by the country’s immigration department was “sporadic”, with individual applications taking an unpredictable amount of time to be processed.

“This all needs to be done by one government department instead of three, and the entire system needs less people working more efficiently,” the manager added.

The resort source said the decision of immigration authorities to suspend new applications for work visas for 11 days this month had hampered efforts to recruit needed staff during the busy Eid period.

Public sector

Despite the concerns raised by private employers, Health Ministry Permanent Secretary Geela Ali said state authorities had been consulted by immigration authorities in advance of not accepting visa applications.

Geela said that as a major employer of foreigners, both the health and education ministries had been given a period of two to three days to fast track any urgent requests for expatriate labour in order to minimise impacts to their operations while the visa system was “repaired”.

She added that while there would still be some difficulties for the ministries due to the ongoing work by immigration officials, the work was anticipated to allow for a more efficient visa system after completion.

Immigration Department Spokesperson Ibrahim Ashraf told Minivan News that the expat online system remained functional this week, although users would be unable to submit any visa applications for processing.

“Thousands of documents have been uploaded and there seem to be a number of counterfeit documents among these,” he said. “We are confident this this backlog will be cleared and new staff have also now been trained to oversee work going forward.”

The immigration department has previously announced that it would be hiring 30 staff to help oversee a comprehensive audit of the visa system.

Ashraf claimed that there was particular concern about business and individual applicants looking to obtain a foreign worker quota or visa by uploading documents that were either incorrect, irrelevant or fraudulent .

Immigration officials earlier this year dismissed reports of a “flaw” in the country’s online expatriate registration system, instead expressing concern that the technology was open to abuse by registered companies.

The Immigration Department confirmed at the time that authorities faced challenges in verifying whether construction projects were real, or a front to smuggle foreign labour into the country, but told Minivan News it had expected to resolve the issue by July.

Trapped in the Maldives

Minivan News has in recent months been informed of a growing number expatriates working in both the public and private sector who have been stranded in the Maldives by immigration authorities due to a failure of state and private employers to renew visa documentation.