The Maldives government has banned the recruitment of unskilled Bangladeshi labourers for one year in a bid to tackle a longstanding problem of undocumented migrant workers.
The announcement was made by Economic Development Minister Fayyaz Ismail on Wednesday, a day after he was appointed chair of a ‘National Task-force on Issues Related to Migrant Workers’ formed to strengthen foreign labour policy and revise regulations on issuing quotas and work permits.
Briefing the press about the “regularisation programme,” Fayyaz explained that the government decided to cap the number of unskilled workers from each source country at 150,000 – half the local population – a limit that has been reached for Bangladeshi labourers if undocumented workers are counted.
“If there are changes and challenges faced by the economy, our task-force will review the decision in six months and see whether changes are needed or not,” he said. Bangladeshi labourers who have applied for work permits would be exempt as the ban takes effect on September 18, he added.
An estimated 63,000 foreign nationals work in the Maldives illegally out of a migrant worker population of 144,600, predominantly Bangladeshi and Indian men who work in the construction and tourism industries.
An office has also been set up in Malé where undocumented workers could register, Fayyaz said, after which employers would be able to hire them. He urged businesses who face difficulties due to the cap to hire workers from the registered pool.
Other plans include restricting the employment of foreigners with ratios in various categories, training Maldivian youth, introducing an annual MVR2,000 (US$130) quota fee in January 2020, and hiking the monthly work permit fee from MVR250 to MVR350 next year.
The deposit required from employers would also be lowered and the government is exploring an insurance scheme to cover deportation costs.
Fayyaz acknowledged the role of Maldivians who “continue to benefit” from the trafficking or illegal recruitment of Bangladeshi workers, most of whom pay huge sums to secure jobs but are abandoned upon arrival in the Maldives. There were also people who take bribes in the names of the minister and top officials in exchange for issuing quotas, he said.
At present, the government lacks resources to properly scrutinise agreements and issue quotas in a timely fashion, Fayyaz said, announcing plans to make it mandatory for businesses to register projects at court before applying for quotas.
The ministry was unaware when the immigration department recently deported two Bangladeshis suspected of human trafficking and money laundering, he revealed, echoing criticism over the failure to conduct further investigations or arrest any Maldivian partners.
The new task-force would help the authorities work together “seamlessly,” he said. It is comprised of the defence minister, home minister, foreign minister, attorney general, police commissioner, immigration controller and representatives from the Labour Relations Authority and resort owner’s lobby Maldives Association of Tourism Ministry.
The task-force was set up by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih after the cabinet deliberated a paper submitted by the economic development ministry with recommendations “to reinforce regulations on handling illegal employment of migrant workers, and on the issuance of work permits,” according to the president’s office.
In March, the economic development ministry took over the mandate for setting quotas and granting employment approvals from the immigration department, which continued issuing visas and work permits. The economic ministry also accepts and refunds deposit fees and offers other services related to the Xpat online system.
Immigration officials told the press in January that workers arrive with valid work permits but some fail to perform a medical evaluation and obtain work visas. Several migrants who arrive to work in resorts also flee and join a labour black market, officials said.
But according to an annual human trafficking report by the United States, many workers from South Asian countries are brought in by recruitment agents with the promise of resort jobs only to be left to fend for themselves after their passports are confiscated. Foreign workers are subjected to “practices indicative of forced labour, including fraudulent recruitment, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or non-payment of wages, and debt bondage.”
Last year, the Maldives was downgraded on a US watchlist for human trafficking over the failure to meet minimum standards for elimination. “Recruitment agents in source countries collude with employers and agents in Maldives to facilitate fraudulent recruitment and forced labour of migrant workers,” according to the 2018 trafficking in persons report.
The first cases under the 2013 anti-human trafficking law were prosecuted in 2016. Three Bangladeshi men were sentenced to 10 years in jail for sex trafficking in November that year.
However, no convictions have been secured since.
“Observers stated some traffickers operated with impunity because of their connections with influential Maldivians and alleged the government was more likely to prosecute foreign suspects than Maldivian suspects,” the US anti-trafficking report stated.