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Bar Council president proposes COVID-19 Emergency Measures Bill

Mariyam Malsa
13 May 2020, MVT 22:16
President of the Bar Council Maumoon Hameed. PHOTO: HUSSAIN WAHEED/ MIHAARU
Mariyam Malsa
13 May 2020, MVT 22:16

President of the Bar Council Maumoon Hameed, on Sunday, published a proposal for a "COVID-19 Emergency Measures Bill", detailing measures to control the spread as well as mitigate the impact on lives and livelihoods amid the ongoing global pandemic.

Acknowledging that the government has implemented several critical steps in response to COVID-19, Hameed stated that "other measures can only be imposed through law".

Revealing the 38-page draft bill on Twitter, he described the document as a possible structure for emergency legislation with detailed measures to cushion the economic impact on lives and livelihoods due to COVID-19.

"There's already been a lot of public discussions on various fora and I wanted to help those interested to see how the proposals would look all together in the form of a bill", stated Hameed.

Noting that the final law would need to address additional issues and discussion on the extent of the steps proposed, he emphasized that "the draft is intended to serve as an aid to reasoned discussion and debate, not to be the final word".

The bill proposes a 'Special Protection Period', from March 1 until December 31, 2020, under which the 'special protective measures' as proposed in the bill can be enforced.

Per the proposal, some of these measures will be authorised by a presidential decree.

It also categorize certain people as 'Specially Protected Persons' and accord them with additional security. The following individuals are to be counted as such:

- Homeless or individuals with no access to food

- Infected indivuals or those at high risk of being infected with COVID-19

- Single parents

- Guardians of minors

- Persons with special needs

- Health professionals

- Emergency service providers

- Any individual unable to return to their usual place of residence due to COVID-19

- Migrant workers abandoned by their employers

The COVID-19 Emergency Measures Bill covers several sections including shelter, food, profiteering, employment rights, unemployment benefits, mental well-being, public utilities and internet charges, loan relief, state expenses and the wages of higher-earning government officials

Shelter

The bill proposes several restrictions, measures and incentives to ensure the welfare of tenants and vulnerable individuals during its designated 'Special Protection Period'.

If passed, all following actions are prohibited, with landlords being legally obligated to reverse such acts:

- Increasing rent

- Terminating rent agreements

- Evictions

- Obstructing provision of public utilities

- Hindering tenants' access to premises

- Any act intended to force tenants to vacate the residence

Concurrently, landlords that offer rent reductions and waivers will be entitled to tax credits ranging from 15 to 50 percent and 25 to 75 percent respectively, provided that the leniency measures fulfil certain requirements.

Monthly rent payments for social housing schemes will become subject to a 20 percent waiver and 30 percent deferment with protected persons accorded higher rates of 30 and 40 percent respectively.

Furthermore, the bill also sees state collaboration with local councils, civil society organizations, businesses and volunteers to establish Emergency Shelters in each administrative unit across the country.

Food

In order to ensure undisrupted food supplies across the country, the proposal calls on the government to establish 'Emergency Food Distribution Centres' on every inhabited island.

As a further measure to promote security, increasing the price of food, goods or services beyond 5 percent of pre-emergency rates would be prohibited. Price inflations believed to be exploitative will be addressed through government-imposed price controls.

Any individual or group found to have profiteered during the 'Special Protection Period' would be required to surrender the profits, which would then be funnelled into a National Fund for Community Recovery.

Employment

Measures proposed in the COVID-19 Emergency Measures Bill to protect the country's workforce consist of restrictions, a government furlough scheme and unemployment benefits as well as special COVID-19 related leave period assessed on a case by case basis.

If the protection period is implemented, all unilateral decisions by employers to reduce wages, withhold Ramazan benefits or enforce unpaid leave, temporary lay-offs or redundancy will become invalid for all individuals employed as of February 29. All affected workers will retain their jobs with no wage reductions and will be considered to be on furlough.

Under the furlough scheme proposed, wages would be divided between the employer and the government at a rate of 20 to 40 percent and 60 to 80 percent respectively. Refusal to utilize the furlough scheme and dismissing employees would be considered a violation of the Employment Act.

Furthermore, monthly benefits will be granted to unemployed individuals as well as self-employed persons and freelancers. If employers have failed to pay Ramazan bonuses to their workers, the government will grant these benefits as well.

The bill categorically prohibits employers from dismissing any employee that falls under the category of 'Specially Protected Persons' during the 'Special Protection Period'.

The bill also introduces a COVID-19 treatment leave and a mental well-being leave of two days per month.

Public utilities and internet charges

The document proposes public utilities, internet and phone service charges to be reduced by between 25 and 40 percent for the duration of the 'Special Protection Period'.

Service providers would also be barred from raising prices or suspending services during the period.

State expenditure and Loan relief

Per the bill, the Auditor General must compile special rules concerning public finance expenditure in accordance with the recommendations by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC).

With regard to loan relief, the repayments of certain types of loans and mortgage agreements would also be suspended. Furthermore, accrual of interest and compound interest is prohibited during this period. The maximum rate of interest is set at three percent.

Wages of state officials and employees of state-owned enterprises

According to Hameed's proposition, salaries up to MVR 20,000 are exempt from pay cuts. Thereafter, a 10 percent and 25 percent cut will be applied to incomes between MVR 20,000 to 30,000 and MVR 30,000 to 50,000 respectively.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Maldivian government has mobilised resources and continues to dedicate efforts to ensure food security, prevent profiteering, introduce unemployment benefits, support mental well-being, partially subsidize public utilities and provide loan relief.

Therefore, Hameed's proposal expands on state measures currently in place and reflects a range of public opinion to suggest more concrete steps to guarantee citizens' safety at a time when several countries impacted by the pandemic are introducing similar measures.

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