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Migrant worker mandate transferred to economic ministry

The immigration department will stop granting work permits and issuing quotas in March.

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In a bid to tackle graft and fraudulent recruitment of migrant workers, the government has decided to transfer regulatory powers and services from the immigration department to the ministry of economic development.

Starting in March, the ministry will offer services related to the Xpat online system, set quotas for businesses, grant employment approvals and refund deposit fees, it was announced Monday. 

The immigration department will continue issuing visas and work permits.

Implementing measures to stop corruption in the awarding of expatriate quotas is a target of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s first 100 days in office.

None of the current employees at immigration will be transferred, the economic ministry assured on Tuesday.

The ministry is also seeking a party to audit the online Xpat system and has announced vacancies to hire an assistant director and inspection officers for the new labour and employment section.

The mandate shift comes after the immigration department carried out a heavy-handed raid operation with police last week to round up undocumented workers.

More than 80 people who failed to produce valid documents when they were stopped in the streets of the capital were taken into custody. After a screening process, 69 were detained for repatriation.

“If there are people involved in bringing them to the Maldives, action will also be taken against them to the fullest extent of the law,” the immigration department warned in a press release.

An estimated 63,000 foreign nationals work the Maldives illegally out of a migrant worker population of 144,607, the department’s new leadership revealed last month.

Controller of Immigration Mohamed Ahmed Hussain ‘Hanafy’ told the press that quotas were issued illegally under the previous government.

There were cases where small cafés and guesthouses were authorised to bring up to 100 workers, he said. “For some projects there were 3,700 quotas issued in violation of the rules,” he said, adding that such permits have since been cancelled.

But pressed by reporters, officials were unable to say how many migrant workers were brought in through fraudulent quotas.

Hanafy urged the public to help address the “root of the problem” by not employing undocumented labourers. Amendments to the Immigration Act are also being drafted to close loopholes and penalise corrupt officials, he added, assuring action against officials complicit in trafficking and fraudulent recruitment.

Workers arrive with valid work permits but some become illegal migrants when they fail to perform a medical evaluation and obtain work visas, an immigration official explained. Several workers who arrive to work in resorts flee and join a labour black market, he said.

On Wednesday, Bangladeshi media reported that the country’s expatriate welfare and overseas employment ministry has advised workers not to migrate to the Maldives and urged recruitment agencies to stop sending workers here.

A ministry official told New Age that restrictions have been imposed following advice from the Bangladesh embassy in Malé.

– Human trafficking –

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.

“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, which downgraded the Maldives on a watchlist over the failure to meet minimum standards for elimination.

Foreign workers in the Maldives, predominantly Bangladeshi and Indian men, 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.”

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.

Trials are stalled in four trafficking cases against five Maldivian and seven Bangladeshi defendants whilst the Prosecutor General’s office pressed sex trafficking charges against one Maldivian defendant.

In October 2017, three prosecution witnesses testified in favour of the first Maldivians charged with human trafficking.

“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.

“Observers reported some officials warned businesses in advance of planned raids for suspected trafficking offences or other labour abuses. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government officials complicit in human trafficking offences.”

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