Island Expert disclosed to The Edition on Tuesday that the company has an outstanding amount of MVR 13 million in unpaid salaries, and that they were in talks to sell assets in order to pay wages.
The Edition reached out to the company’s Managing Director Anon Songpanya following the heated protest staged by Island Expert’s migrant workforce, over several months of unpaid salaries, last Monday. The expats had been recruited for the construction of flats in reclaimed suburb Hulhumale’ for Maldives Police Service (MPS) and Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) personnel.
In the interview, held with verification of Songpanya’s identity, the managing director stated that Island Expert was in discussion with potential clients to sell off some of the company’s assets.
He revealed that with a workforce of 800, recently downsized to approximately 700, the company has to issue monthly salaries of MVR 5 – 6 million. Reiterating his stance on previous interviews to local media, Songpanya maintained that Island Expert was unable to remunerate its staff over the past months due to various issues after the Maldives, similar to other countries around the world, imposed strict travel restrictions over the COVID-19 pandemic.
‘Only our own assets’
During the interview, The Edition brought to Songpanya’s attention certain allegations and doubts raised by relevant stakeholders regarding the expatriate workers’ situation.
One of the issues at the forefront was that including Songpanya, himself a notable businessman who owns Global XPress (Thailand) and Funaki Import Export Co. Ltd, seven of the 15 Island Expert shareholders are foreign nationals, one of whom is Prince Abdulaziz bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia.
Responding to concerns raised as to why Island Expert could not arrange remuneration with financial assistance from such big-name shareholders, Songpanya firmly asserted that the company “never takes loans”, a position that apparently extended to the Saudi prince as well.
He stated that Island Expert would sell only its own properties to secure salaries, further reiterating that the company was not selling any assets that were owned by Maldives National Defence Force Company (SIFCO) and Maldives Police Service Company (POLCO), an allegation previously reported by local media outlets.
“That [accusation] has created conflict between me and clients, and damaged my reputation a lot”, he said.
However, Songpanya expressed hopes that matters could reach a resolution soon, once he returned to the Maldives, given that the country recently re-opened its borders on Wednesday.
“[Presently,] I am stuck in Thailand. I have not been able to go to the Maldives for four months because of the lockdown”, he told The Edition, claiming one of the issues to circle around being unable to give his signature for relevant documents, required to secure and issue salaries for the staff.
Upon The Edition’s further inquiry as to whether or not he could greenlight salaries through virtual communication, Songpanya proclaimed –
“That is not how I do business”.
“I think, too late now, … but when the Maldives reopens borders [on July 15], I hope to be in the Maldives in the next three or four days”, he said.
Adding that Island Expert was currently working to pay wages for the month of July, Songpanya further revealed that he was seeking loans from certain high profile Maldivians for further assistance with the situation. The Edition has reached out and corroborated the conversation with one of the two Maldivians named by Island Expert; the latter, however, could not be contacted till the time of publishing.
Prior to July 13, the expatriate employees of Island Expert also held a peaceful protest on July 6 over the same issue.
In its wake, Songpanya had told local media that he reached a solution with the staff regarding their pay, and that the workers would not stage demonstrations anymore.
However, following the latest protest on Monday, which resulted in the arrest of 41 expatriates over injuring police officers and damaging police vehicles and public property, Songpanya claimed that it had been incited by some of the staff who were “not in line with my offer”.
Although he hesitated to allege that another entity was behind the riot, Songpanya told The Edition that some of his staff had sent him photographs “to show me that the police were hitting them”; something he maintained would not have happened had the protest been peaceful.
Repeatedly noting that he had negotiated with the staff on their pending wages, while the company was also providing food and accommodation despite the lack of work due to COVID-19, Songpanya expressed that the company was not responsible for the riot.
“When I pay [their] salary without work and tell them ‘stay in the accommodation, don’t go on the road’, I think I do [the] best [I can] already”.
However, he assured that he would “find money and pay salaries” once he returned to the Maldives. Songpanya further vowed that Island Expert would maintain the US Dollar rate at MVR 16 for their staff, despite the recent spike to MVR 18 on the Maldivian market.
Moreover, in response to The Edition’s question regarding the workers’ demand for clearance and tickets to return to their home countries, Songpanya noted that the company could not do much during Maldives’ lockdown.
Nonetheless, he stated that Island Expert has requested to charter a Maldivian flight to Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Although the national airline’s Managing Director Mohamed Rizvi confirmed the request, he also noted that as the government was currently prioritizing the repatriation of undocumented workers, Maldivian was unable to cater to private firms.
The construction work for the flats allocated for MPS and MNDF staff in Hulhumale’ commenced in 2012, during former President Mohamed Waheed’s administration, but the project is yet to conclude. Songpanya had recently told local media that the process of assigning the remaining work on the project to a subcontractor was nearly complete.
Recently, expat-led demonstrations have taken place amidst renewed concerns from rights groups as well as the general public, over the continued exploitation of expatriate workers in the Maldives.
Violations reported include human trafficking, withholding of wages, poor living conditions, and other human rights violations. Further, the aforementioned low quality of life has cemented the disproportionate effect had by Maldives’ ongoing COVID-19 outbreak on its vast migrant population.
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