An Indian migrant worker was arrested in the Maldives on charges of assault hours after he formally accused his employer, Lily International, of withholding his passport in order to prevent him from leaving the country.
Regu Vijayadhas was arrested on October 30, hours after he petitioned the immigration department to order the food importer to return his passport.
The 27-year-old man, a heavy vehicle operator, reportedly wanted to attend his brother’s wedding in his home state of Tamil Nadu in southern India on November 6.
“He was arrested just a couple of hours after we visited the immigration department. We had sent them a letter in Regu’s name asking to terminate his contract and return his passport,” said Vino Dhevraj, an man who accompanied Vijayadhas said.
He was arrested on charges of assaulting a Bangladeshi worker and remanded for 20 days.
Manju Kumar, Vijayadhas’ brother, claimed the charges were false and aimed at preventing his brother’s departure from the Maldives. “We are concerned about his wellbeing in Maldives prison. We just want him back without further delay,” he said.
The 2013 Anti-Human Trafficking Act defines withholding of identity documents, a common practice in the Maldives, as an act of exploitative conduct, punishable by ten years in jail.
Lily International was not responding to calls for comment at the time of going to press.
A 2016 report on human trafficking in the Maldives by the US state department said the immigration department had investigated some 30 cases of withholding of passports, but “it is unclear what action the government took to penalise the retention of migrant workers’ passports.”
Meanwhile, the Tamil Nadu-based National Domestic Workers’ Movement has urged Indian foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, and the Indian high commission in Malé to blacklist Lily and repatriate Vijayadhas immediately.
“The employer has done the false accusation, just to take revenge on the worker,” NDWM said in an open letter, and claimed that officials here believe that Lily was “clearly involved” in getting Vijayadhas “arrested on fabricated grounds simply to withhold his departure.” Vijayadhas had been targeted and trapped, the organisation said.
No action has been taken against Lily despite the fact that withholding identity documents is considered a crime, the NDWM said.
H. Vasanthakumar, a member of Tamil Nadu’s legislative assembly, in a separate letter to Swaraj warned of protests at the Maldives embassy by supporters of the Indian National Congress if Vijayadhas is not allowed to return.
This year, the Maldives was placed on the US state department’s watch list for human trafficking for a second consecutive year.
The state department had praised the launching of a national action plan, a training curriculum on trafficking for new immigration officials, and a reporting hotline, but said the government “does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking,” because of low rate of prosecution and inadequate and inconsistent protection for victims.
If downgraded to tier three, the lowest grade on the watch list, the Maldives may be subject to non-humanitarian and non-trade sanctions.
Some 130,000 migrant workers are believed to reside in the Maldives, including 60,000 undocumented workers, the majority of whom are Bangladeshi and Indian men working in the construction sector.
A government report in 2011 revealed human trafficking to be the Maldives second most lucrative industry after tourism – worth an estimated US$123 million a year.
Only one man has been prosecuted for human trafficking so far.