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Hospitality industry inhospitable for workers amid pandemic

A detailed look at the challenges faced by the true architects of Maldives' million dollar tourism industry - resort workers. As COVID-19 sweeps the globe, local travel bans have left thousands stranded and at risk, while fighting to retain jobs and pay.

Mariyam Malsa
28 March 2020, MVT 10:52
Resort workers holding signboards at a protest PHOTO: HUSSAIN WAHEED/ MIHAARU
Mariyam Malsa
28 March 2020, MVT 10:52

On March 14, the Maldivian government banned any and all movement between resorts and inhabited islands, for a 14-day period, as one of the first preventive measures against COVID-19.

Introduced under the state of public health emergency declared on March 12, and extended to liveaboards and safaris on March 21, the travel ban represents a decisive decision to prevent spread within the local community.

However, these same measures effectively penned in thousands of resort workers, local and foreign alike, at a time when the majority of resorts have made no indication of restricting arrivals or halting operations.

Presently, there are a total of 155 resorts operating across Maldives. Accounting for over 70 percent of the GDP, and employing the single largest proportion of the country’s workforce, to say that the Maldivian economy is heavily dependent on the tourism industry is an understatement.

Despite one Maldivian testing positive, the vast majority of Maldives’ confirmed 14 COVID-19 cases are either tourists or expatriate resort workers.

At the time of publishing, it has been two days since the country ceased issuing on-arrival visas. This delay in barring arrivals, as a buffer against the pandemic, left resort workers extremely vulnerable to contracting the virus from incoming tourists by placing them at the frontline of Maldives’ COVID-19 crisis for 14 days, in a move largely to appease the mostly foreign-owned corporations that operate, manage and hold the lease to the islands.

It should also be noted that a halt on arrival visas does not necessarily halt all incoming tourists to the country, although it is certainly more restrictive.

There are numerous accounts of limited access to safety equipment and resort managers not permitting staff to wear masks in front of tourists despite being in regular contact with them. As it stands, no special allowances have been made to mitigate risks for aged or immunocompromised staff. The travel ban, combined with no likelihood of opting for quarantine, rendered them unable to leave resorts, even if they chose to resign their posts.

For better understanding, let us study the case of Ali Didi*, child-care supervisor at a luxury resort in Maldives. In addition to being an asthmatic patient, Didi has always had a weak immune system and is, according to available information, especially vulnerable to the worst effects of coronavirus. Being exposed to children with flu-like symptoms all day worries him. Though he wants to be isolated he realizes his shared accommodation and cafeteria meals are not adequate social distancing measures. Being that he has no other source of income, he is afraid to turn down duty, but Didi has nowhere else to go even if he did.

Per Section 72 of the Employment Act (Statute No.: 02/2008), employers are legally obliged to provide any deemed necessary to provide a safe working environment in which the health of employees is protected, at no cost to them. As such, even at this time, given the risk, the state must take an investigative look into complaints alleging that protective masks and other gear are not provided. It seems pertinent also that the Tourism Ministry exercise visible efforts to ensure resort workers are well aware of their rights, at this time.

Beyond the fact that renouncing duties to choose self-isolation could possibly endanger employment status, it is also concerning that even when people are placed in isolation or seek to distance themselves, most back of the house areas and rooming conditions are not adequate for the purpose.

A resort worker blowing a conch shell. PHOTO: HAWWA AMAANY ABDULLA/ THE EDITION

The status quo is mired with uncertainty and loopholes, as repeatedly pointed out across social media platforms. Even though the government will cease issuing on-arrival visas on March 27, resort staff are still not free to leave their place of employment after the standard 14 days of isolation. Instead, as per the government’s announcement on Wednesday, entire teams of resort staff must wait until the last guest departs, a decision that lies entirely under corporate control.

To illustrate, many people are still under the impression that now, if ‘Didi’ wishes to leave the resort, he may do so now that the two weeks have passed. However, Didi’s resort welcomed arrivals till last Thursday, and the guests are due to leave after two weeks as is typical for high-end properties. This forces Didi is to work another two weeks and wait for a further 14 days before he can ‘presumably’ return to the safety of his home. By the time he can safely board a vessel headed home, Didi will have been locked-in for at least 42 days.

Although Mabrouq Abdul Azeez, Undersecretary of Communications at the President’s Office and official spokesperson for all things COVID-19, confirmed last Thursday that resorts that have not received tourists throughout the travel ban may be able to release staff sooner, they would have to email their request to the HPA and it would be evaluated on a case by case basis, which is also likely to take time.

Even at minimum, resort workers across the archipelago have remained in de facto quarantine for nearly a month. While some might equate the situation of these workers to a sacrifice, or compare it to the civic duty exercised by staying at home and practicing social distancing, the infringement on their right to voluntarily leave their place of employment has largely been ignored.

By the ninth day of the lockdown, the police had already arrested and fined six individuals for violating travel restrictions, one of whom appeared to be desperate enough to swim to a neighbouring island in a bid to flee South Palm Resort in Addu Atoll. Another individual threatened self-harm if he was not given clearance to leave Cinnamon Velifushi Maldives and was subsequently taken under police custody. Such events serve to emphasize the severity of the circumstances that resort staff are facing and that such individuals would leave immediately if provided the choice.

The restriction of movement wrought additional worries for those employed at resorts that have still remained relevant in the wake of the lockdown announcement. On top of COVID-19 fears, workers are dealing with salary cuts, redundancies and notices by management to take no-pay leave.

According to a legal expert that spoke to The Edition, employers do not have the legal right to unilaterally decide on a deduction of workers’ basic salary to an amount below the figure mutually agreed upon in their employment contracts, or amend the legally mandated allowances. Similarly, the source added that employees could not be forced to take unpaid leaves without their consent. Both parties must be in mutual agreement before an action undetermined by the law, such as unpaid leave, is enforced with binding effect.

Top lawyers in the country have urged all employees facing redundancy to take note of the circumstances and reasoning under which they are terminated. Additionally, they advised employees, both local and expatriate, not to hesitate in approaching the Employment Tribunal should they feel like they have been wronged, particularly in the case of redundancy, where certain conditions must be met and procedures undertaken.

This includes the employer being required to prove their fiscal status being under imminent threat. The employer must also prove that dismissals are made on reasonable and fair grounds, and may not simply terminate an employee based on preference. For instance, a productive and punctual employee cannot be made redundant over personal differences whilst retaining other employees that make less contributions to the business’s future.

In alignment with the aforementioned legal opinion. Tourism Employees Association of Maldives (TEAM) maintains a hardline against no-pay leave, salary cuts and failure to pay Ramadan bonuses. Additionally, the organisation has also spoken in favour of guaranteed risk allowance for a 4-month period.

Last week, the Economic Ministry urged individuals to report employers terminating or deducting salaries amid the COVID-19 pandemic via the reporting module on their online platform www.jobcenter.mv. Three days later, the ministry revealed receiving 78 complaints, of which a majority were lodged by employees within the tourism sector.

Considering most resorts are privately owned by lucrative companies that have yet to make a major financial contribution to the state’s massive mobilization of resources to combat COVID-19, it is questionable whether salary coverage for two to three months is really out of reach for major players in the tourism industry. It should be noted that these uber successful businesses, and these luxurious world famous properties did not come to fruition overnight. Tourism investments are generally based on stable business models with allocations for contingency plans to be implemented in unforeseeable situations such as the current ongoing situation.

Irrespective of how hoteliers and resort managers choose to act amid the pandemic, it is arguable that the government must not relinquish the duty of guaranteeing the constitutional rights to its citizens working for private companies that have independently managed resorts since the development of tourism for decades.

A need for greater welfare

In an age of free information, with a healthy public taste for democratic freedoms, the continuation of such starkly alienating policies will not go unnoticed or without repercussions. If nothing else, a government elected on promises of safeguarding the human rights of its citizens should be held accountable for such an oversight.

Surely in the case of Didi’s family, while concerned about their own safety and happy about many other strategies implemented by the government, they remain wholly distraught over the lack of concern for Didi’s rights.

“If it were their own immediate family member”, says Didi’s mother, “these owners and leaders are certain to feel differently. To us, his safety is more important than revenue”.

Although the cancellation of on-arrival visas, and therefore tourists, might offer some consolation, it does not negate the infringement of rights or the fact that several dire circumstances faced by resort staff could have been avoided had the state acted more swiftly to close borders for holidaymakers and provided resort staff an option to seek quarantine and leave of one's' own volition.

Due to a unique but potentially catastrophic combination of factors, tourism workers in Maldives remain disproportionately affected by the economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. As such it makes social and economic sense to introduce special policies for resort workers along with healthcare workers, aviation officials or members of security services, all of whom are at the forefront of the virus epidemic.

In the absence of such support, there is no justification for hoteliers to earmark the comparatively minuscule salaries of line staff as the first sacrifice amid the pandemic since neither these individuals, nor their families, have room to make further sacrifices at a time when they are among the most vulnerable.

Sadly, during his first live address since the state of public health emergency was announced, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih made no specific mention of actions against exploitative resort managements.

However, when push comes to shove, further protection for resort workers must be prioritised even at the expense of the owners, investors and stakeholders who have been lining their pockets since the development of tourism in 1971.

It is their employees who should be credited with building these million-dollar empires and it is their daily effort that shields Maldives’ reputation as one of the world’s top luxury destinations. If they are meant to anchor the country’s economy during and after this unprecedented crisis, an equivalent level of protection must be accorded along with the responsibility.

*Editor's Note: Certain names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

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