Slave Labour: a ticking time bomb

Filed in Features & Analysis by on March 30, 2014

I just read a piece in the Dhaka Tribune by Prof. Selina Mohsin, the former Bangladeshi High Commissioner to Maldives, about the plight of migrant Bangladeshi workers in the Maldives.

Most of the information was not new to me; there is a reason why the Maldives has consistently been placed on the US State Department’s Tier-2 watch-list for Human trafficking for four consecutive years, and the reason is plainly visible if you look around in any direction on the streets of Malé. However, there was one shocking statistic she points out that I was not previously aware of.

“…on an average one Bangladeshi worker died each week. For instance one died from poisonous fumes while cleaning a well. He was just 22 years of age. While Bangladeshi labourers were constructing a resort villa, over a lagoon, a wooden pole fell over one of them and he died from head injury. Such events occurred regularly”

Another staggering statistic reported earlier in Minivan News is that the trafficking industry is worth almost as much as the the country’s fishing industry, which ranks second behind Tourism.

I remember that the High Commissioner had been outspoken about the issue during her assignment in the Maldives. In 2010, she mentioned that 30-40 stranded workers turned up at her embassy every day.“without passports and in very dire straits”.

At the time, she demanded tighter immigration control. The Immigration Department, however, pleaded that it was not possible to screen workers at the time of arrival “as we do not have a Bangladeshi speaker”. (As a side note: It should be “Bengali”, not “Bangladeshi”. Also, this is a terrible excuse, because the Immigration department should know better than anyone that there are 70,000-90,000 Bengali speakers in the Maldives, and I hear some of them are looking for jobs)

Indeed, while compiling a report a couple of years ago, I learned that there were an estimated 70,000 Bangladeshi workers in the country, with up to 20,000 more undocumented workers. This, in a country with a population of a little over 360,000 and a 28% unemployment rate!

I’ve heard defensive arguments from Maldivians that “Sure they are treated poorly, and paid little in the way of wages, but hey – nobody asked them to come here! Surely, it is better here than what they have back home. If they were so unhappy, they would return to Bangladesh!”

This argument is not only factually incorrect, but also displays a staggering ignorance of the meaning of the term ‘exploitation’.

Many workers often sell their land or take large loans to pay agents to go abroad on the lure of high paying jobs, only to discover upon arrival that they have been swindled and left on their own. Many have their passports confiscated by unscrupulous employers and agents.

They are often crammed a dozen or more men to tiny, humid rooms where they sleep in rotating shifts. I’ve had too many Bangladeshi workers and waiters tell me that they haven’t been paid wages for months on end – and are forced to do odd jobs on the streets to make a living. Others do hard labour for ridiculously small wages to make barely enough to eat and have some left over to support their families back home. I’ve seen waiters do shifts that begin at 6 in the morning and end at 2 the next morning. There are workers in Thilafushi wading through stinking sludge and breathing in toxic fumes from that ecological disaster of a garbage island, while making less per day than what you would pay for a coffee at a half-decent café in Malé.

thilafushiWorker in Thilafushi.  (Photograph by Hani Amir)

I was once walking on Majeedhee magu with a visiting researcher of Maldives, when we witnessed an accident. Some reckless asshole on a speeding motorbike came crashing into a Bangladeshi man on a bicycle. The handle of his bicycle was twisted, and he stood there mute and in shock, holding his hand. I grabbed his hand and examined it. His thumb was completely crushed flat through the nail.

The asshole on the bike just grinned like a tool, waved and sped away. The moment I told the injured man he ought to go straight to the hospital, he flat out refused and seemed to be in a sudden hurry to get away. Before I could insist any further, he got on his broken bicycle and pedaled off in the opposite direction.

I realized that the man likely had no health insurance, and was almost certainly an undocumented worker who could not approach either law enforcement or a court or an employer or a hospital for aid, and would rather suffer in silence with a painful thumb than face deportation.

There are the tens of thousands of people like that in the Maldives, who are forced to suffer inhuman conditions and live with no dignity. In spite of the suffering and humiliation these workers go through every day, they are also frequently scapegoats for whatever issue is plaguing society. The economy is weak? Because expat workers are shipping away our dollars. Crime rates high? Blame foreign labourers. Somebody in the hospital got infected with HIV? Blame foreign lab technician. Maldivians education system is a complete fucking shambles? Blame foreign teachers with their stupid, unintelligible accents.

Local media and society jump on any chance to alienate and stigmatize expatriates.And this is despite it being self-evident that these workers, labourers and teachers contribute more than what they get back in meagre incomes by way of productivity and building infrastructure. I would go so far as to say they’re the glue that’s holding together an otherwise ravaged, unsustainable economy.

In December last year, President Yameen signed into law a bill criminalizing Human Trafficking. It came late in the day, but is arguably a reasonable first step. My problem with it is, it doesn’t go far enough.

As things stand now, these terrible human rights abuses are not of interest to any political party in the Maldives and they simply do not figure in any political discussion.

When a third of the resident population of country lives in such oppressive circumstances, I think they need better representation to lobby for their rights and fair living conditions. I have previously thought on the possibility of a local community-based NGO or association of migrant workers, perhaps backed by their country’s respective embassies, to better protect these vulnerable, disaffected workers politically.

I strongly feel that Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and Indian workers should have as much rights, freedom and dignity on Maldivian soil as we enjoy in their countries – and this can come about only with organized pressure groups and representative lobbying to improve their situation.

I fear that if their inhuman conditions are left to fester for much longer, it might be that this dissatisfaction and resentment might boil over one day in the form of street riots or worse, and bring our economy grinding to a halt. That is a day I do not want to see.


Comments (2)

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  1. kess says:

    I wish people would stop linking Bangladeshi employment to unemployment in the Maldives. I’m referring to this sentence here – “This, in a country with a population of a little over 360,000 and a 28% unemployment rate!”. Even if every Bangladeshi or Indian labourer takes off from Maldives, unemployment isn’t going to go up. Unemployment is connected to every Maldivian’s ability to ‘make a life’ too (there’s lots to explain in that phrase). Are we able to marry, bring up a child, and all those life goals, aspirations one has. Given the circumstances, a Maldivian taking up a Bangladeshi labourer’s job isn’t going give him those opportunities. In that case, it’s better to sell a bunch of drugs (seemingly a get-rich-quick scheme), and hope you escape unscathed to achieve all those life goals. Point is, no Maldivian will take up those jobs, not because they are ‘foni’ but because it’s just not enough.

    • Yameen Rasheed says:

      Isn’t that an anomaly though?

      I expressed your sentiment in a different way in this paragraph: “…these workers, labourers and teachers contribute more than what they get back in meagre incomes by way of productivity and building infrastructure. I would go so far as to say they’re the glue that’s holding together an otherwise ravaged, unsustainable economy”

      In other words, the economy as it is, is actually sustained by active exploitation of labourers, who are subject to conditions that no Maldivian would find acceptable.

      In other words, we are essentially using slave labour – and of course, being a slave is not a viable proposition to people who aspire to a comfortable, middle class existence. Nothing about ‘being foni’. So long as we have slaves, there is no reason to pay livable, decent wages to local construction workers and waiters, etc.