Corruption and the plight of migrant workers

The estimated official figure of migrant population in Maldives is 140,000. The unofficial estimates are above 200,000 bringing the size of the migrant population in Maldives up to almost two thirds of the total Maldivian population of the country.

Migrant workers collect garbage from households daily for a small monthly fee.

Regardless of this figure, migrant workers have few rights and state redress mechanisms are not accessible to these workers, further victimizing those who are already being exploited in forced labor conditions. The language barrier and the lack of public interest litigators in the country further limits their access to the justice system. Maldives has been ranked in the Tier Two of the US State Department’s Watch List for Human Trafficking for the fourth year in a row.

Migrant workers often sell all their assets to come to the Maldives and are reliant on their new employers for sustenance for themselves and their families back at home. Often times, they face threats or even violence for speaking up about injustices. Their living quarters are generally provided by their employers, so if they are dismissed they also lose their housing. The majority of the cases that Transparency Maldives’ free legal advice center receives from migrant workers include complaints of non-payment of wages, often for months, withholding of travel documents and identification and inhumane living conditions.

Migrant workers sort and collect garbage in Thilafushi, an island fully reclaimed by dumping garbage into a lagoon. They endure toxic smoke and a hazardously polluted environment daily.

Migrant workers live and work in unimaginable conditions, sometimes being forced to do work that is not permitted in their work permits. They are underpaid or unpaid, their passports and identification documents withheld by agents and employers, effectively crippling workers from rectifying their situation or reaching out to the justice system.Our advocacy and legal aid center provides free legal advice and assistance to expatriates and Maldivian citizens. We have assisted over 560 migrant workers with cases of non-payment of wages, unacceptable working conditions, poor housing, withholding of their passport by employment agencies and employers, and being forced to do work that is not permitted as per their work permit.

These are not newly emerging issues and they closely reflect the findings reported in U.S Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report (June 2013). The report notes fraudulent recruitment, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or non-payment of wages, or debt bondages as some of the forced labor situations faced by the migrant workers in Maldives.

While the necessary regulations such as Regulation on Expatriates Working in Maldives and Regulation on Bringing Expatriates to the Maldives for the purpose of Employment are in place, the issues arise from the lack of implementation, monitoring and enforcement of said regulations. With the Anti-Human Trafficking legislation that was ratified in December, 2013 withholding passports or identification and forms of exploitation of migrant workers has been criminalized.

We encourage exploited workers who need legal assistance and advice to come to us. Corruption and human trafficking are inter-related. Human trafficking often happens due to systemic governance failures, often caused by corruption. The cases and complaints submitted to our advocacy and legal aid centre shed light on the linkages between the two issues. Corruption and human trafficking are two sides of the same coin and need to be addressed as a matter of urgency, to prevent further abuse of workers rights.