Human Rights' Activist and Consultant for Human Rights Watch, Ahmed 'Forme' Mohamed discusses the plight of the Maldives' tourism workers amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as they call on the government to ensure "bread and roses for all".
Azaad*, a Bangladeshi chef at a 5-star resort, shared that the resort at which he works has begun offering new employment agreements to all workers. Workers wishing to stay on at the resort will face deductions of as much as half of their salaries, while workers opting to take no-pay leave for 3 months will be sent home. Azaad has worked for over 5 years in the Maldives. The survival of his family of 4 depends solely on the income he earns. Not knowing where his future lies has left him distressed beyond measure.
The Maldives island nation in the Indian Ocean is a well known luxury holiday destination. Its economy is heavily dependent on the tourism industry. At present, there are 155 resorts and 140 new resort islands under construction.
Well over 45,000 workers served the 1.7 million tourists that visited the country in 2019. However, with the arrival of COVID-19 pandemic to these otherwise secluded shores, global travel and tourism came to an abrupt halt, and with the cessation, industry workers across the archipelago are in fear of losing their livelihoods.
To begin with, it is known that fundamental rights and freedoms, such as the right to equality, freedom from discrimination, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, right to an adequate living, right to desirable work, and right to join trade unions are limited in the resorts.
In 2019, the long hours of work without overtime bonus, discrimination, increase of no contract casual workers (mostly women and migrant workers doing odd work like sweeping, cleaning, and gardening), huge pay gaps, forced labor, and an increase of undocumented migrant workers put the Maldives back on the US human trafficking list.
Moreover, there is an increasing fear that already existing human rights violations in the tourism industry will even further deteriorate with the COVID19 pandemic and the aftermath of the economic downfall.
As the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak spread from island to island, the tourism industry laying off many of its workers in misery after the president announced the lockdown on the 25th March, has become that much more concerning.
According to the Tourism Employees Association of Maldives (TEAM), resort management companies are forcing the workers to sign unfair agreements with pay deduction, forced no-pay leave, and fear of losing their employment. Among these employees are a large number of migrant workers whose livelihood activities are heavily dependent on the tourism industry.
Fazlul*, a 37-year-old room attendant at an international hotel chain said he was forced to sign a termination letter after a 3-month probation period. His basic salary was USD 350 per month. His wife, 4-year-old son, and others in the family depend on him. A few resorts are taking other measures to cut down the running cost by limiting food for staff and electricity cuts at times. Workers interviewed want anonymity since they fear for their jobs.
In every aspect, migrant workers remain the most vulnerable in the Maldives. There are more than 144,600 migrant workers and more than 63000 are undocumented workers. Reportedly, undocumented workers working in resorts and at new resort construction sites are being sent back to Male, where the living conditions are far worse. This month, the government identified 200 extremely congested labour quarters in Male where workers share accommodations.
On the 5th of April, the Ministry of Tourism announced that it would take action on resort operating firms, should they be found to mistreat their staff. The government has established an online platform and a hotline to register complaints from workers. However, with no clear policy directions and the lost trust for the relevant authorities, it has done little to assuage the growing uncertainty among workers in the tourism industry.
Nevertheless, it is high time that all stakeholders respect international labour laws, best practices, domestic labour laws, and regulations to resolve the issues.
The government must guarantee easy access to register unfair dismissal and treatments to find practical solutions that protect the rights of all workers. As such, I personally urge the government to prioritize and utilize stimulus packages to workers in need.
Migrant workers are much more vulnerable to economic shock over the COVID19 pandemic. Hence, I further appeal to the government to, at this time, hasten their speed and move to ratify the International Convention on the Protection of Migrant Workers and Their Families.
*The names of the resort employees and migrant workers described in this article have been changed for privacy purposes.