Slipping Through The Cracks

By Raisa Wickrematunge in the Maldives

The interior of Hulhumale’ detention centre, where migrant workers without papers are sent

Hulhumale’ is known as the airport island of the Maldives- it’s where tourists from all over the world fly in. But the other section of Hulhumale’ is a world away from the runway. It houses a detention centre, one which takes in migrant workers who have fallen foul of the law.
This centre is manned by a single immigration officer and two police guards, who have just been appointed. Indeed, they are so new to the job that they do not even check our paperwork when we arrive at the gate.
‘When I got here, it was just thick trees and scrub. No one could live here,’ the immigration officer said, emphatically. He and two officers cleared the area and set up the centre- a long building with an aluminium roof.
There is a separate section for the toilets. The stench is indescribable. There are a couple of shower stalls, simple taps with running water, one of them outdoors.
Around 20 Bangladeshis are currently living here, although the number could swell to around 70, and often does. They say they are here because they have been cheated by unscrupulous agents. Many have no travel documents. The immigration officer says many of them are here because they committed petty crimes.
There were recently two Sri Lankans at this detention centre, who left two weeks ago, the police say. One got in a fight, and was allowed to leave for Sri Lanka. The other was brought here as he was in possession of drugs, and he was later deported.
However the Bangladeshi inmates claim different. Two weeks ago, three prisoners jumped over the low wall and escaped, and one of them was a Sri Lankan, they claimed. The immigration official chimes in here to contest this- the escapees were all Bangladeshi, he says. The police officers expressed embarrassment about the escapes, but said they felt powerless dealing with over 70 people.

Lack of Information

The main issue when it comes to Sri Lankan workers in the Maldives is a simple lack of information, as was discovered through a workshop organised by the Migrant Forum of Asia together with the American Solidarity Centre.
There are  7,795 Sri Lankans working in the Maldives. The majority of them are employed in tourism (2,629 ). 1630 are in construction, and 974 are in financing, business and real estate, according to 2010 figures from the Maldivian Ministry of Human Resources, Youth and Sports.
These were figures previously unknown even to Sri Lankan delegates, until they were provided by the Maldivian Human Rights Commission. The Commission noted that most of the Sri Lankans were engaged in semi-skilled and professional work and there fore not often mistreated. This is partly because Sri Lanka does have a legal framework dealing with migrant worker’s rights- it has signed UN and ILO conventions, and has several bodies dealing specially with the issue. But this did not mean that there were no incidents involving Sri Lanka at all. Jeehan Mahmood of the Maldivian Human Rights Commission said they had encountered a Sri Lankan woman who had come to the Maldives expecting to work as a domestic. She was hired to look after an elderly woman, but was not paid for one entire year. After the woman died, she was changed to a house where her ‘employers’ tried to force her into prostitution. The woman ran away and came to a social worker for help. She now has a new job with employers she likes.
Mahmood has also previously gone on record noting that Sri Lankan workers were among those expatriate workers held for over a month without a court ruling, often for not having a passport, visa or travel permit in 2009.

The Resort Workers

The fault does not always lie with the host country. A trip to a resort run by Sri Lankans revealed much. Ranmali, who works in the hotel restaurant, says that she has to work up to 17 hours each day. Unlike in Sri Lanka, where she could work in 8 hour shifts, here it was just a few hours break. Ranmali receives just 2 days off a month, compared to the many holidays most Sri Lankans enjoy. Her companion Ranjan said wistfully that as idyllic as the place was, it could get very dull after a while. He too complained about long hours. Waiter Umesh said that there was often tension between the Sri Lankans and the Maldivians, with the latter often not interacting with Sri Lankans. Interesting insight into this problem was offered by Tourism Employees Association of Maldives representative Zakir Mauroof, who said that despite the fact that Maldivians had an unemployment problem; over 70,000 people (one third of the Maldives population) were migrant workers. He expressed some dissatisfaction at this state of affairs, though conceding it could be partly caused by Maldivian’s reluctance to take on menial jobs, like construction. All of the resort waiters said that they did not get to return home more than once every two to three months. They had been lured overseas with the idea of making more money and enjoying a higher standard of living, but it couldn’t be further from the truth, they said.
While the pay was better, many of the lower-level employees said they wanted to return home as soon as their contracts were over. This was in sharp contrast to the senior level workers, including those at management level, who expressed their satisfaction with their jobs, many adding that they definitely had better job and salary prospects in the Maldives.
But the plight of Sri Lankan workers pales in comparison to that of the Bangladeshis. Thousands of them flood into the Maldives, all clutching pieces of paper that proclaimed they had jobs (mostly in construction). Upon arrival, they would discover that these employers were in fact, nonexistent.
Many of them had sold parcels of land to make the trip, only to find themselves trapped in a strange country, without any papers. They are unregistered and are often taken advantage of. The Bangladeshis congregate every morning, around 7 am, in front of one of the mosques in the capital, Male’. Trucks roll past, and those looking for cheap labour often stop and ask five or six to hop on. Many are fully aware that these people do not have official employment visas, and after the project is completed, they often refuse to pay them.
The buildings where some migrant workers lived were often in a pathetic state, Jeehan said, having bad sanitation and little ventilation. At times, 60 people had to sleep in cramped spaces, while sharing two or three toilets. The situation was worse in the more remote islands, and even the Maldivian government could only guess at the number of migrant workers in these areas, and the conditions they lived in.

The Importance of Education

It was an eye-opening insight into how important education and awareness was. Since Sri Lankans took jobs at the semi-professional level, much fewer of them were exploited compared to the Bangladeshis. But once again, there was a lack of information. A member of the Sri Lankan Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) said that there had been no complaints at all from domestic workers in the recent past. 339 women went to the Maldives in 2011, and 120 had emigrated so far in 2012. There had not been a single complaint recorded to the SLBFE or the High Commission from them- yet the Maldivian Human Rights Commission insisted that Sri Lankan domestic workers did face problems. The SLBFE worker added that there had been a single worker complaint which had been speedily resolved from the Maldives overall.
Most Maldivian authorities, including the police, have no definitive list of the numbers of migrant workers- only a list of cases filed against them.
Overall, it is clear that while Sri Lankans living in the Maldives are better off, there are also some gaps- particularly in terms of statistics, and also in terms of inter- governmental cooperation. This is expected to change, with representatives from Bangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lankan Human Rights Commissions, several NGOs (including the Sri Lankan Centre For Human Rights Development) pledging to work together collaboratively and solve the issue. Hopefully once this is completed, there will be fewer people slipping through the cracks.

1 Comment for “Slipping Through The Cracks”

  1. Larson

    My goodness! Why are these people leaving the GREAT MIRACLE OF ASIA created by his highness MR to work in MALE! Has his excellency been informed??

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