The Maldives Ministry of Home Affairs’ declaration that protests, marches and gatherings can only be held with prior permission from Maldives Police Service (MPS) comes amidst simmering unrest among expatriate workers and bring to the surface the issue of their regular wages and better living conditions.
On 14th July 2020, Maldives Ministry of Home Affairs declared that street protests, parades, gatherings and marches can only be held with prior permission from the Maldives Police Service. This declaration from Ministry of Home Affairs was in response to protests in recent months organised by expatriate workers amidst the pandemic demanding unpaid wages and better living conditions. Currently Maldives has nearly 2,50,000 expatriate workers, primarily from South Asian countries, in a country of a population 5.16 lakh. Among them are nearly 70,000 undocumented workers, the majority from Bangladesh.
Expatriate worker protests
The plight of expatriate workers in Maldives islands, who work on various resort development and other infrastructure development projects is not a new issue. The pandemic has only exacerbated matters due to temporary closure of construction work and tourist resorts. Protests by expatriate workers employed at Island Expert Pvt Ltd in Hulhumale, a construction company, demanding unpaid wages turned violent on 13th July 2020 and police arrested 41 workers in a bid to stop the violence. In an another instance, on 3rd July 2020, expatriate workers staged a protest in Bodufinolhu and Baa Atoll against the RIX Maldives Private Ltd, a resort company, demanding six months of unpaid wages and better living conditions. In this case, police arrested 19 expatriate workers to end the captivity of 13 Maldivian staff who had been held hostage. Criminal charges were also levelled against expatriate workers by the police. The claim by the expatriate workers regarding wages was supported by a law firm Public Interest Law Centre (PILC), which asked the Employment Tribunal of Maldives to compensate nearly 200 workers working in RIX Maldives.
Response of the government
The Government of Maldives initially took a humanitarian view of the situation surrounding expatriate workers in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. Even in the absence of valid documentation, government provided due access to special COVID-19 clinics such as the one in Hulhuamale to the expatriate workers. In July, alone, more than 90 Bangladeshis, tested positive for the corona virus, according to the data of Health Protection Agency of Maldives. The cramped living spaces of expatriate workers apparently led to difficulties in containing the spread of virus among them. The Government, however, changed its stance in the face of protests in July and subsequent disturbance in the form of property damage/attack on police in Male as well as in resort Islands with the President describing the situation surrounding expatriate workers as ‘urgent national security priority’. The Chief of Defence Force even linked the unrest and presence of large number of expatriate workers as a ‘threat to sovereignty of Maldives’. Human Rights Watch (HRW), on the other hand, specifically asked the government not to deal with the matter only from security angle, but to address the issue from humanitarian and rights standpoint. It asked the government to release detained workers.
Measures Taken to Address the Issue
In this backdrop, government took a decision to repatriate workers with no valid documents. In recent months, more than 4,000 workers have been repatriated. On the basis of “Nationwide Regularisation Programme for Undocumented Workers”, the government is planning to repatriate another 20,000 undocumented expatriate migrants by end of 2020. By repatriating illegal migrants, government is hoping to address the current unrest among foreign workers but the real issue seems to be linked to human trafficking. To control the flow of blue collar migrant workers, government had last year, announced a ban on bringing workers from Bangladesh for one year starting 18th September 2019. A quota of 1,55,000 was fixed for blue collar workers from each country, except Bangladesh. Apart from South Asia, Maldives receives migrant workers from Philippines, Iran, Egypt and Russia. Despite the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act since 2013, undocumented foreign workers have continued to rise in Maldives. Fraudulent recruitment by agencies in source countries by colluding with agents in Maldives, debt bondage, withholding of wages and forced labour are some of the reasons for increase in undocumented migrant workers. In a positive move, on 30th July 2020, the government announced that it will implement the “National Anti-Human Trafficking Action Plan, 2020-2022”. The plan’s main aim is to accelerate efforts to eliminate Trafficking in Persons (TIP) in Maldives. Ministry of Defence will implement the Action Plan in coordination with other departments. The Action Plan will look into various aspects such as legislation and polices; sensitisation and awareness and monitoring, enforcement and training to eliminate human trafficking.
Protests are a manifestation of growing unrest among expatriate workers and a worry for the government of Maldives, which is trying to keep its economy afloat amid the global pandemic. The issue has been simmering in Maldives in recent years but the pandemic has accentuated the problem. Initiatives taken by the government to register undocumented workers and decision to implement a National Action Plan are positive steps amid the pandemic. Whether, these steps will address the real issue of protection of victims of human trafficking and investigation of fraudulent agencies and persons, involved in trafficking remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Maldives opened to international tourism on 15th July 2020, hoping to put the economy on track. It welcomed the first batch of international tourists after a gap of four months on 15th July 2020. Not just tourists, nearly 266 expatriate workers also entered the country for employment in July. For a country of the size and population of Maldives, expatriate workers have contributed immensely to the economy of Maldives, primarily based on tourism. Therefore, it is imperative that Government of Maldives addresses the issue in a holistic, manner.
*Dr. Samatha Mallempati, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
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