Discrimination is often the transference of moral degradation to others. The Maldives presents many examples of it in its treatment of migrant workers. Take Malé’s old Sultan Park, now upgraded and renamed Rasrani Bageecha. Its large, open space and fine old trees provide a rare haven of peace in the otherwise congested capital. On Fridays, Bangladeshi and other migrant workers used to go there to relax. Now they have to pay USD 7 as entry fee, which hardly any of them can afford. Those unaware of this recent discriminatory imposition are summarily thrown out by the police.
Maldives, once a very poor country, acquired wealth in recent decades through international tourism and tuna fish exports. As wealth grew, more and more Maldivians stopped working and imported labourers from Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. Discrimination, even hatred, of foreign labour became widespread.
Unskilled Bangladeshi job-seekers pay USD 2,500-3,000 to the brokers who paint a promising picture of employment in the Maldives. Bangladeshi brokers collude with Maldivian agents to facilitate fraudulent recruitment and forced labour. The workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. On arrival their passports and documents are often seized by the agents and they are forced to work in arduous conditions.
Expatriate labourers, mostly Bangladeshis, constitute a significant part of the population. They are mostly unskilled and forced to work over 14 hours a day in the construction industry and the service sector. They get the lowest wage of USD 100-150 per month, which is usually not paid regularly.
Construction of high-rise buildings in Malé and of luxurious overwater bungalows and pavilions in the island resorts ignore safety precautions and is extremely hazardous. Workers’ deaths are commonplace.
Maldivians have moved from other inhabited islands to settle in Malé, only two kilometres wide, making it the most congested capital in the world. The cost of living is sky-high, employment opportunities are limited and education is of dubious quality. The numerous youth of the tiny capital are largely unlettered. With inadequate opportunities for fruitful jobs, many form organised gangs of brown-sugar addicts. Riding their motor bikes precariously through narrow roads and armed with knives they often target migrant workers to extract money for drugs.
In 2008, the US Department of State placed Maldives on its Tier 2 Watch List for human trafficking. In 2010, with the help of former president Mohamed Nasheed, I, then serving as Bangladesh High Commissioner, was able to legalise over 17,000 migrant workers unjustly fired or whose promised jobs had never materialised. I also managed to stop a moratorium against Bangladeshi recruitment.
Later, in 2013, Maldives narrowly escaped relegation to Tier 3 Watch List and international sanctions by US Department of State by quickly enacting Anti-Human Trafficking Act regarding transparent recruitment procedure; unjust dismissal; unpaid wages; breach of contract and violation of employment rights.
But the government failed to implement the enacted laws and the situation has not improved. The workers remain the most vulnerable section of the society and are virtually “owned” by their employers.
In 2015, a group of youths entered a cafe and demanded free coffee from Shaheen Mia, a Bangladeshi worker. As he was not the owner, he explained that he had no permission to serve free coffee. Thereupon the gang damaged the cafe and threatened him. He apprised the police of the incident but no action was taken, and the next day his body was found; he had been brutally stabbed to death. Two days later, another Bangladeshi was found dead in Thoddo island and two more were stabbed in the capital.
These murders and stabbings sent panic among the Bangladeshis. Some doing sub-human, manual labour in the high-end resorts decided to protest against their deplorable treatment. The government banned the protest, threatening deportation without salary.
Also in 2015, a Bangladeshi by the name of Bassan died in a horrifying way. His face was smashed and his body mutilated. No one was arrested despite evidence implicating a Maldivian. Subsequently, two workers were kidnapped, robbed and brutally beaten in an employment agency. Is it surprising that the workers are terrified of their employers?
The Maldives tourist resorts, famed all over the world for their exotic overwater bungalows, hide tragic stories. They are built by the blood, sweat, tears and even lives of Bangladeshi workers.
Construction over the Indian Ocean lagoons is extremely hazardous. Once two Bangladeshis were installing a long wooden pole in the water when the pole fell on their heads. Their deaths were instantaneous. I sent a strong letter to the foreign tourist company for compensation for the families of the deceased. I was informed that the workers were sub-contracted from a Maldivian company which had no provision for compensations. There are numerous such painful incidents.
The situation is still deteriorating. In 2016, the Maldivian Parliament passed a law imposing three percent tax on all migrant workers’ wages. This draconian law seems aimed at breaking the morale of the workers whose wages are already often not given to them for months.
A Maldivian human rights activist, Tholal, cited the law as discriminatory, declaring that “it is not in the spirit of international law and the constitution that a tax is imposed on the personal income of foreign workers, the most marginalised group in society, when Maldivians do not even pay any income tax.”
Despite suffering such harassment, many workers cannot leave to return home due to outstanding debts to their brokers and fears of reprisal. A Maldivian government official has even cited the migrant workers as “threats to national security.”
It is easy to blame the disenfranchised. It is easy to dehumanise the weakest living on the edge of society. This is the sad truth about the tourist paradise Maldives. Corruption is rife, the judiciary compromised and the constitution ignored. Violence is common and fighting among political parties rampant as Maldives increasingly veers towards a failed state. It is high time that the international community and the Bangladesh government took serious steps to help the distressed workers.
Professor Selina Mohsin is a former ambassador of the Bangladesh government.