Local NGO Transparency Maldives (TM) is hosting a six-day art exhibition highlighting the lives of migrant workers in the Maldives. The ‘Others’ exhibition at the national art gallery features photos of migrant workers at their workplaces as well paintings and installation art from 10 locally renowned artists.
Last week, the Maldives was placed back on the US State Department’s tier 2 watch list for human trafficking. The 2015 Trafficking in Persons report noted that migrant workers in the Maldives experienced “forced labour, including fraudulent recruitment, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or nonpayment of wages, and debt bondage.”
TM’s senior project coordinator, Ahid Rasheed, told Maldives Independent that the NGO started offering free legal advice to migrant workers about three years ago. “We realised that this large community of hard workers is the most ill-treated people in the country. They do not have anyone to turn to,” he said.
TM first planned to approach relevant government offices and independent institutions, Ahid said, but then decided that changing the public’s outlook or mindset was also important for combating racism and xenophobia.
“We chose to deliver our message through art rather than words because when people actually see it brings out more emotion in them,” Ahid said.
The department of immigration revealed in June that the migrant worker population of the Maldives exceeds 124,000, including 94,492 registered expatriates and more than 30,000 undocumented workers.
TM’s executive director Maryam Shiuna told Maldives Independent that the exhibition’s purpose was to “celebrate their work and contributions, as the Maldives celebrates 50 years of independence, not to promote their victimhood.”
The exhibition was opened on July 30 to coincide with the International Day Against Human Trafficking and is due to end tomorrow (August 5). TM had been working on the project for two months.
Most of the photographs depict male migrant workers at work, in farms, at the Thilafushi waste dump, and doing odd jobs. The installations include a replica of the waste laden bicycles many migrant workers use to transport waste, and a paper box with a electricity switch. When the viewer turns the switch on, they see a small cage with livestock.
The installation was inspired by a real events. When some migrant workers complained over non-payment of wages after six months, the employer turned off the electricity at their living quarters for three days.
Artist Mariyam Omar says of the cage: “The absolute control most employers hold can be depicted literally in a switch that can be turned on and off if the workers refuse to work and live under inhumane conditions. As embarrassing as it if for our society, we must realize that their living conditions are somewhat parallel or worse than that of livestock that are also treated terribly.”
Another striking installation is titled “We are the others, we are watching over you.” It initially appears to be simple life-size portraits of three female migrant workers displayed on TV screens. Just as you are about to turn away, the subject blinks and the photos appear to come to life.
Munshid Mohamed, a popular photographer who contributed to the exhibition, told Maldives Independent that the focus of the exhibition was a subject that is rarely acknowledged in Maldivian society as the contribution of migrant workers’ is not appreciated.
Munshid’s photos at the exhibition were taken during the past seven years.
“I noticed that most of the time, when I point my camera at the migrant workers, they are often scared and think that I am trying to find fault in them,” Munshid said.
Photographer Sharif ‘Shaari’ Ali, who also contributed to the exhibition, stressed the importance of highlighting the plight of migrant workers in the country.
“They are the most ill-treated, harassed, abused, assaulted, demeaned people in our society. They do not have adequate living conditions, they are not given proper shelter and health screening and often considered to be less human,” Shaari said.
Shaari’s photos show migrant workers at the industrial island of Thilafushi near Malé as well as working in agricultural farms on the island of Thohdoo in Alif Alif atoll.
“The irony is that the migrants working through piles of garbage at Thilafushi, the smoke there is stunning for a photo but that is the main problem as they are human too,” he said.
Shaari said most workers did not object to being photographed at work.
“I think it is because they want how they live their lives to be seen by someone,” he said.
TM’s exhibition is a good start for raising public awareness, Shaari said, and suggested that the next step should be an exhibition on the personal lives of migrant workers, such as house maids.
About 100 to 170 people have visited the exhibition every day since it opened for public viewing. The exhibition is open daily from 10:00am to 10:00pm.
Ahid said TM invited migrant workers passing by the national art gallery on Friday to visit the exhibition, but most acted “as if they did not belong there.”
“When I had tried to take a photo of the workers looking around the exhibition they had asked me if it would be shown on TV and said if it did their bosses will be angry with them. They seemed very afraid,” he said.
In late March, migrant workers in Malé attempted to stage a protest following the murder of two Bangladeshi nationals in a spate of violence against expatriates. The demonstration was called off after the department of immigration threatened to cancel visas and take action against the employers of the migrant workers participating in the protest.