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Maldives: Covid-19 Exposes Abuse of Migrants

Overhaul System to Protect Foreign Workers at All Times

Security personnel patrol a migrant worker accommodation block under quarantine for Covid-19, Malé, Maldives, May 9, 2020. © 2020 Ahmed Shurau/AFP via Getty Images

(New York) – The harsh treatment of foreign workers in the Maldives during the Covid-19 pandemic has left many migrants vulnerable to abuse, Human Rights Watch said today. The Maldives government should adopt urgent measures to protect migrant workers, including upholding the right to peaceful protest and ending longstanding labor rights violations.

Migrant workers in the Maldives face a range of entrenched abuses from employers, including deceptive recruitment practices, wage theft, passport confiscation, unsafe living and working conditions, and excessive work demands, which indicate forced labor and violate domestic and international standards. The spread of Covid-19 and the lockdown to contain it has exacerbated these conditions, as workers face job loss, unpaid leave, reduced salaries, and forced work without pay.

“The Covid-19 crisis has compounded perennial abuses and toppled whatever precarious existence migrant workers in the Maldives may have achieved,” said Shayna Bauchner, Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s failure to effectively regulate recruitment and employment practices puts already vulnerable migrants into abusive situations, then traps them there.”

Human Rights Watch in July interviewed by phone seven migrant workers and three lawyers representing detained workers, and spoke at length with a group of workers involved in the protests. Their accounts revealed that the Maldives government, as well as some international and domestic companies, are failing to protect workers from serious abuses, including trafficking, forced labor, sub-minimum wages, involuntary and unpaid overtime, wage theft, and squalid living quarters.

Estimates of the number of migrant workers in the Maldives vary widely, from 145,000 to over 230,000. According to a 2020 United Nations report, the Maldives has the largest proportion of migrant laborers in South Asia, roughly a third of the resident population. At least 60,000 are undocumented. The majority are men from Bangladesh who work in the construction and tourism industries; others come from India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, and the Philippines.

Recruiters often use deceptive or fraudulent practices to recruit migrants to work in the Maldives, leaving them at risk of debt-based coercion and trafficking. Workers described paying extortionate fees to employment agents who promised secure and well-paying work, then being sent to different jobs with much lower salaries once they arrived, or being left with no work at all. In many cases, agents or employers confiscated their passports.

Migrants often fall victim to “quota trading,” a corrupt practice in which employers who are able to obtain permission to bring in more workers than they need “trade” them with others, leaving workers unable to even identify their actual employers and hold them to account.

The UN special rapporteur on torture reported after a November 2019 visit to the Maldives that “Migrant workers would often have to share collective accommodation with up to 200 other workers, sleeping in shifts in deplorable hygienic conditions.” Two workers at a construction project told Human Rights Watch that 12 to 15 workers would live together in 2.5-by-3.5-meter rooms.

Living in congested shared accommodations with limited access to water, sanitation, and health care has sharply increased the risk of contracting the virus that causes Covid-19. In one shared accommodation block in the capital, Malé, a group of 95 migrant workers tested positive for the virus. Since the onset of the pandemic in the Maldives, there have been increasing reports of discrimination and stigma against migrants.

“For days, I lived on biscuits and water because I couldn’t afford a full meal,” one foreign worker told Human Rights Watch. “Everyone around me was in a similar situation, and I was too ashamed to ask anyone for help.”

When workers started protesting unpaid wages and lack of access to food and other essential supplies due to the lockdown, the authorities called migrants a threat to national security and began cracking down on their basic rights. In July alone, the Maldives police detained more than 80 migrant workers for joining protests. Many have been deported, some without receiving the salaries they are owed.

The authorities deported at least 38 migrants after construction workers from India and Bangladesh staged a protest in Hulhumalé in July over several months of withheld wages. They said they had no money for medical care, food, or toiletries. Government ministers criticized the workers, suggesting the protests were politically motivated.

In July, migrant workers at a resort under development on Bodufinolhu island protested after being forced to work for six months without pay. A 23-year-old protester said that many of the 200 workers had developed skin conditions and other ailments because they could not afford soap or medical care: “We use only water to clean up when we shower and after using the toilet because we no longer have any money to buy soap. People are falling ill all around me, but we have to beg for medical care.”

The Labor Relations Authority called on the Bodufinolhu construction company to pay all outstanding salaries, and the police announced an investigation into allegations of human trafficking and wage theft. However, workers who were arrested were released to immigration custody, possibly for deportation, and their wages remain unpaid.

In August, the government published new migrant worker regulations, 2020/R-62, enshrining employers’ responsibility for arranging migrants’ arrival in the Maldives, accommodations, registration, and repatriation. The regulations also seek to limit quota-related violations. The authorities should support and monitor employers to ensure compliance with all new directives that increase migrant worker protections, but broader action is needed.

The Maldives government should initiate comprehensive reforms to protect migrant workers’ rights. Labor rights protections and holding accountable abusive employers, agents, and corrupt officials are necessary for developing mutually beneficial arrangements between employers and migrant workers. Foreign and national companies can play a prominent role in ensuring that they do not benefit from forced labor and other rights violations, and should comply with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

“Maldives authorities should be prosecuting traffickers, abusive employers, and coercive recruitment agents, not punishing migrant workers for speaking out about their abuse,” Bauchner said. “The government needs to revise its immigration and labor laws and procedures so that migrant workers will have the protections they need, whether in times of crisis or not.”

Labor Rights Abuses in the Maldives

In its February 2020 report to the UN for its upcoming Universal Periodic Review, the Maldives government acknowledged that, concerning migration, “Stakeholder agencies failed to identify the underlying issues in this sector, and strengthening the policies relating to migrant worker population in Maldives lacked prioritization at a national level.” The government outlined recent efforts to address the issue, including regularizing undocumented migrants and improving regulations for blacklisting abusive employment agencies.

Such commitments, however, have yet to improve the situation for migrant workers and have been negated by government abuses in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Lawyers said that the authorities have continued to penalize migrant workers rather than target the agents, officials, and companies responsible for their abuse.
 

Fraudulent Recruitment Practices and Trafficking

Prospective migrant workers secure employment in the Maldives through both licensed and unlicensed labor agents, many of whom extort money, falsify travel documents, and mislead migrants about their work arrangements.

Workers pay agent fees, which range from US$2,000 to $4,000, through loans, mortgages, sale of family property, or personal savings. Once they arrive in the Maldives, they often end up in jobs different from those promised, with much lower salaries. Many, like “Johir Rahman” (all migrants’ names are pseudonyms) and others to whom Human Rights Watch spoke, were abandoned without a job, leaving them tied through debt to their agents or employers as they repay or recover their expenses, which can take years.

Rahman, 34, said that in 2018 he paid an agent in Bangladesh about $3,000 for a restaurant job. An agency representative picked Rahman up at the airport, took his passport, and brought him to a shared accommodation for industrial workers in Malé. The restaurant job did not exist, and Rahman never saw the agent again. “When he didn’t show up for days and I was starting to run out of the little money I had brought with me from Bangladesh, I began looking for work on my own,” he said. He first found work at a construction site but was not paid, then moved on to a job at a café, where he worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, before being laid off during the Covid-19 lockdown.

After his visit to the Maldives in November 2019, Nils Melzer, the UN special rapporteur on torture, described a common pattern of abusive recruitment:

Migrant workers would be lured into paying or indebting themselves for large sums of money for a purportedly lucrative employment in the Maldives, only to be subsequently trafficked for exploitation against their will. Immediately upon arrival in the Maldives, their employers would take their passports and would make them “pay off” exorbitant recruitment fees, not paying them any wages for extended periods of time and exposing them to living and working conditions that are unsafe and can only be described as cruel, inhuman or degrading.

“Hussain Azad” left Bangladesh for the Maldives in 2012 at age 15. When he arrived, the agent, whom he had paid $2,700 by selling some of his family’s cattle and land, gave him a fake work permit, then blocked Azad’s phone number. On his own, Azad found a job in a kitchen.

Under international law, recruiting or moving a child into a situation of exploitation constitutes trafficking, regardless of whether coercion was used. According to the United States 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report, the Maldives authorities identified 21 suspected cases of child trafficking over the one-year reporting period, but reported no criminal investigations or services for the victims in connection with the cases.

The US downgraded the Maldives to the report’s “Tier 2 Watch List” in 2018 (the second-lowest ranking, indicating a failure to meet the minimum standards to eliminate trafficking), where it has since remained due to a failure to prevent forced labor, human trafficking, and exploitation of adults as well as children. The 2020 report found that “corruption and official complicity in trafficking crimes remained significant concerns,” noting:

Recruitment agents in source countries collude with employers and agents in Maldives to facilitate fraudulent recruitment and forced labor of migrant workers.… Police reported an increase in Bangladeshi nationals living in Maldives who pose as labor agents and fraudulently recruit migrant workers from Bangladesh, facilitate their travel to Maldives, and abandon them upon arrival without documentation, rendering them vulnerable to traffickers.

The Maldives human trafficking industry was worth an estimated $123 million in 2011, second only to tourism, and would have grown significantly with the increase in irregular migration over the nine years since. The government adopted an Anti-Human Trafficking Law in 2013, but implementation and enforcement have been minimal. An expert with a nongovernmental organization said that the Maldives has convicted only five traffickers under the law, all Bangladeshi nationals, and has yet to establish standard operating procedures for identifying trafficking victims, as the law mandates.
 

Coercive and Exploitative Labor Practices

Even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, wage abuses in the Maldives were widespread. The construction company where Johir Rahman found work after he was abandoned by the agent provided food and lodging, but he was not paid. “For three months I didn’t receive any pay,” he said.

Workers told Human Rights Watch that the 200 migrant workers on Bodufinolhu island had not received any pay since December 2019. For months, their supervisors promised the issue would be resolved, at times threatening workers with deportation without pay if they continued to ask for their salaries. Hussain Azad said that some workers who complained were fired without remuneration. “We have no way to clean ourselves, we have no way to contact the outside world, and we have no information on what is going on now,” Azad said in July. “I just want to leave Bodufinolhu with the pay that I am owed.”

In 2019, “Mohamed Shareef,” a 26-year-old Bangladeshi national, took out a loan to pay a recruitment agent $3,000. He said the agent took him from the airport to a guest house, then cut off contact with him. Shareef was able to find work in the kitchen at a resort construction site, but the company has not paid him for the past seven months. He said he was afraid that his family will be forced to sell their possessions if he cannot repay the loan. “I want to go back but I can’t,” he said. “I have to somehow make money to pay back my loan. Every time I am able to speak with my father, he cries. He wants me to return, but that isn’t an option.”

“Arshad Chaudhry,” 30, paid an agent about $3,000, partially through loans, only to discover there was no job when he arrived in 2017 from Bangladesh. He found work at a laundromat and gradually paid off the loan. Despite the deception surrounding his recruitment, he urged his brother to join him in the Maldives to better support their family. They took out a second loan to pay the agent, and his brother arrived in late 2019. When the Covid-19 lockdown began, both lost their jobs, with the recent loan still outstanding. Chaudhry said:

Going back is not an option for us because if we do, we will never be able to pay back the loan we took for my brother. My family will end up losing the little that we have. No matter how bad things are, the only option we have is to wait and hope we find work.

A 2018 study found that industrial workers in the Maldives make an average of 4,000 Maldivian rufiyaa ($260) per month. A typical worker spends about $160 on food and accommodation, leaving only $100 to repay their debt, support their family back home, and cover their personal expenses. Delayed or withheld wages immediately put migrant workers at risk of destitution. With the pandemic and a worsening situation on Bodufinolhu island, Azad said he called home for funds. “I haven’t been paid for seven months, so I had no choice but to ask my mother for money,” he said.

Migrant workers said that they are frequently required to work long hours with no days off, in contravention of the maximum working hours defined in the Maldives Employment Act. “Nubeer Islam,” 48, said that after arriving in the Maldives in 2014 from Bangladesh, he was sent to work as a shopkeeper for 17 hours a day, from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., without days off and only short breaks for prayers and meals. He left after two years, during which there was no improvement in working conditions or an increase in his $150 monthly salary.

Long working hours without days off poses particular dangers for construction workers, who often work without proper safety equipment. The construction workers on Bodufinolhu, for example, had to procure their own equipment, which they could ill afford. “We have never been provided any safety equipment,” one worker said. “We work in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. We were told that if we want safety equipment, we should buy it with our own money.”

The lack of safety equipment leads to frequent workplace injuries and deaths. The International Organization for Migration reported that work accidents are the leading cause of death for migrants in the country. On July 22, a Bangladeshi worker died after falling from the 14th floor of a construction site in Hulhumalé.

Melzer, the UN expert, described receiving “numerous reports of migrant workers being subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment by private actors, often with the complacency or even complicity of state officials.”

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), to which Maldives has been a party since 2006, recognizes everyone’s right to just and favorable working conditions.
 

Increased Vulnerability From Covid-19

Wage abuses and economic vulnerability have escalated during the Covid-19 pandemic. Because Johir Rahman was working informally in a café without a contract, he was the first to be laid off when Malé was put under lockdown in April. “I pleaded with [my employer] to keep me on but he said he had to take care of the people who were officially employed by him, and that he couldn’t afford to spare anything for me,” he said. Rahman tried to stretch his savings but still ran out of funds by the end of May, and could not afford to buy anything to eat except biscuits and water:

My roommates found out about this and pooled together some money to help me with food. The owner of my room also allowed me to stay, on the condition that I pay him back when things go back to normal. I was lucky in this way. My family managed to send me $200 recently. This is what I am living on now.

The Malé lockdown was particularly hard on workers dependent on daily wages, who used to congregate around parks and wait for people to offer them work. Nubeer Islam had been working ad hoc jobs as a day laborer for the past four years. During the lockdown, he went into debt in order to keep his room and be able to eat, which is preventing him from returning home. “I want to go back home to Bangladesh, but I still have to continue working here for a few months to pay off the debts I accumulated over the lockdown,” he said.

Although employers in the Maldives are legally obligated to provide all migrant workers with health insurance, coverage is often minimal and does not extend to outpatient care. Many workers are not informed that they have insurance. Workers said they were not allowed to take sick leave without it being deducted from their salaries, while having to cover medical expenses themselves.

Some employers also illegally confiscate passports, work permits, and other papers, leaving workers unable to get health care and compelled to self-medicate. In January 2019, a worker from Bangladesh died after a hospital denied him treatment because he did not have his passport and work permit. Undocumented workers are especially vulnerable to restrictions in access to care.

In an effort to curb the spread of Covid-19, authorities sent migrant workers to temporary shelters to reduce congestion in already overcrowded worker accommodations. But poor conditions at some sites led to protests. After reports surfaced on social media about conditions at an isolation facility for migrants on Vilivaru island, the government apologized for having moved workers there, admitting it was not fit for human habitation, and transferred them to other facilities.

The authorities have returned more than 13,500 migrant workers to their countries of origin during the pandemic, which the government has touted as a solution to the “migrant problem.” The repatriations were done hastily, without ensuring that the returned workers received pending wages or could seek redress for any labor violations. Lawyers representing detained migrants said there is no procedure for workers to collect their unpaid wages from their home countries.
 

Crackdown on Protests, Arbitrary Arrests

Migrants working in construction and tourism have held demonstrations since May to protest withheld wages and poor living and working conditions. The authorities have at times responded with threats and have often been unwilling to address or even acknowledge the workplace abuses that triggered the protests.

In May, construction workers on Thilafushi island staged a protest over unpaid wages. Another protest on Thilafushi in early June followed the death of a migrant worker and growing concerns about dangerous living conditions. Police detained 133 migrant workers, later releasing 126 and arresting 7. A lawyer familiar with the case said that one of the released workers had been injured while in police custody. The Human Rights Commission of the Maldives opened a review of the case, but later told the worker’s lawyer that it could not pursue the investigation because the worker had been deported.

In July, construction workers building an apartment complex in Hulhumalé for the Maldivian Police Service and Maldives National Defence Force protested dire living conditions and several months of unpaid wages.“When we get our salaries, we get our tickets, we get our passports, we’re happy to go back to India,” said one worker in a video posted online. Police arrested 41 workers on July 13 following a confrontation during which the workers allegedly damaged police vehicles; 38 were deported without access to lawyers or a fair hearing to contest their arrests and deportation and seek redress. A lawyer involved in the case said they have not been able to confirm if the workers received full back pay.

In June, a construction company repatriated 431 migrant workers to Bangladesh and India for their involvement in protests, although only 80 had volunteered to return. The company did not respond to Human Rights Watch’s request for information.

The authorities have also accused workers at the Bodufinolhu island development of obstructing officials and holding people hostage, which the workers deny. Workers said that in early July, after the site supervisor left the island, they heard that the remaining national staff were also planning to leave, which would cut off their access to food and health care. They had no money after months without pay, did not speak the language, and the company was holding their passports.

When a boat with local residents arrived at the island on July 2 threatening the workers, they prevented it from docking. A worker said that when the police arrived later that night, they assumed it was again the local residents and blocked them. Some threw rocks and metal rods at the boat. “We actually did want the police to come, so that we could tell the authorities what was going on in the island,” Hussain Azad said. A second police unit was able to land.

The police
arrested 19 workers, accusing them of holding Maldivian staff hostage by barring the boat, and made them sign charge sheets in Dhivehi, which they could not read. Only some were granted access to legal representation, and none were allowed contact with their families. On August 3, all were transferred to immigration custody, indicating they may be deported without receiving pay for their work. The Criminal Court rejected a request for their release, citing their lack of passports and their being held on immigration, rather than criminal, charges.

The remaining migrants were held on the island for about one month, with their movement severely restricted and monitored by police. Workers said that they were confined to a few rooms, including the mess hall, which had no floor, sleeping on a tarp spread over the sand. On July 31, after a public outcry on social media in response to reports about their living conditions, the authorities moved the workers to a temporary shelter in Hulhumalé. A migrant worker said that some of them have been threatened with eviction or deportation for continuing to seek protection for their rights.

As of August 23, the salaries remained unpaid, with no indication of when the workers would be compensated. The workers described living in a state of desperation. “I can cope with hard living conditions and I am willing to do any job, just as long as I get paid,” Azad said.

The developer and construction company both denied responsibility for the unpaid salaries, taking advantage of the undocumented status of many of the workers and lack of official contracts and documentation. In a July 3 statement, the construction contractor acknowledged the unpaid wages and other alleged labor violations, but claimed that the developer was responsible for salaries under their contract. The developer released a statement asserting it had paid the contractor the agreed upon amount, and that the nonpayment and any labor abuses were the construction company’s responsibility.

The Labor Relations Authority ordered the construction company to pay all outstanding salaries by the end of July, but the company rejected the order. The specifics of the order – written in Dhivehi, which the workers do not read – were not shared with the migrants.

In early July, the police announced that they were investigating the construction company on allegations of human trafficking, wage theft, and firing employees for protesting their unpaid salaries, but no further information has been released. The Maldivian Public Interest Law Centre (PILC), a nongovernmental organization, submitted a case to the Maldives Labor Tribunal on behalf of the 200 company employees for back pay, damages, and safe repatriation.

The group Transparency Maldives criticized the government response in Bodufinolhu, calling on authorities to “investigate the issues that led to the arrest and take legal action against those who violated the rights of the migrant workers instead of re-victimizing them. What happened in Bodufinolhu is a consequence of the injustices suffered by many migrant workers in Maldives on a daily basis.”

Senior Defence Ministry officials have asserted that the recent protests were “riots,” claiming they did not stem from longstanding human rights violations, and have labeled the migrant population a threat to “national security.” On July 21, Chief of Defence Maj. Gen. Abdulla Shamaal announced plans to act against the migrant population, and said officials were holding discussions on “how we can take steps against the ‘illegal people,’ how we can send them back.”
 

Recommendations to the Maldives Government

  • Uphold the right of everyone in the country, including migrants, to peacefully protest, and drop charges and release everyone held for peacefully protesting.
  • Develop national labor migration policies that address rights abuses faced by workers and establish safe migration channels that are affordable, simple, and efficient. Communicate policies effectively to migrant workers and businesses employing them.
  • Formalize safe and accessible recruitment channels for migrant workers, and ensure that recruiters are licensed and do not demand extortionate fees. Employers, not workers, should pay recruitment costs and deposits to the immigration department.
  • Develop procedures and policies to better monitor employment practices and working conditions for migrant workers to identify indicators of forced labor, and provide victims with access to protection and services.
  • Ensure that workers receive written copies of employment contracts in a language they understand, as well as a full explanation from employers about their rights and the terms and conditions of work before they sign. Ensure that they retain their identity documents and can leave jobs and change employers freely.
  • Ensure that workers are paid on time, not less than once per month, are compensated for overtime, and have adequate rest, safe work conditions, and full and equal access to health care and sick leave, in line with the Employment Act and international labor standards.
  • Develop effective and safe complaint mechanisms for workers that ensure confidentiality and non-retaliation. Engage with nongovernmental organizations working with migrant workers to establish communication regarding potential labor rights violations.
  • Investigate worker complaints and appropriately prosecute agents, employers, and government officials involved in trafficking, forced labor, and other labor abuses.
  • Work with countries of origin to develop a procedure through which repatriated workers can address labor disputes, access legal advice and support, seek redress, and collect wages. Any repatriations should be regulated to ensure that protections are upheld and salaries repaid, and that employers are not misusing repatriation to terminate and return workers to whom they have not provided full compensation, wages, and benefits. Workers still in the Maldives being detained or threatened with deportation for peacefully protesting should be released.
  • Ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families and the International Labour Organization’s 2014 Protocol to the Forced Labour Convention, and enact new or amended legislation to prohibit all forms of forced labor.
  • Amend the Anti-Human Trafficking Law to bring it in line with international standards, and ensure its effective implementation, including the adoption of standard operating procedures to identify victims of trafficking.

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