The Maldivian government was able to prevent Bangladeshi migrant workers’ community in the capital Malé from holding a demonstration on Friday, by using the threat of deportation. The Bangladeshi community, consisting of mainly unskilled workers, was trying to protest against the rise of xenophobia in the Maldives, and increasing attacks targeted at Bangladeshis.
In August organized gangs in Malé repeatedly attacked some Bangladeshi workers in their living quarters while in the northern island of Kulhudhuffushi a male worker was castrated and brutally murdered. Police claim that the murder was sexually motivated and has arrested a fellow Bangladeshi worker of the victim. In two separate incidents two Bangladeshi workers were found chained in two houses in Malé. One of them was chained to a tree.
The Bangladeshi High Commissioner to Maldives was so alarmed by the developments that he cautioned that he might have to pull out Bangladeshi workers from the Maldives.
Malé, which is a small island of about two square kilometers, has a population of over 30,000 migrant workers. Most of them come from the neighbouring countries of Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh. Majority of them are unskilled workers, who find the wage of US$100 attractive enough to work in the Maldives. In most cases families back home are dependent on the income the workers earn.
The high population of Malé and the scarcity of land have created a high demand for housing. It has also made rent in Malé comparatively one of the highest in the world. A construction boom during the last 15 years had created a high demand for migrant workers.
While there are several foreign professional workers such as doctors, accountants and teachers, the increase in xenophobia is mainly directed towards unskilled workers. Recently there was a report of attacks against foreign workers in the country’s tourist resorts, self-contained islands where Europeans spend their holidays, ignorant of what happens in this ‘paradise’.
The increase in xenophobia could also be related to the rise in organized crime and the proliferation of gangs in Malé. A large percentage of youth in the Maldives are brown sugar addicts.
Apart from the rise of xenophobia, an issue of equal concern is how the foreign workers are treated by their employees. Normally migrant workers work long hours while they are offered a very low wage. In most cases, their accommodation is pathetic as well. It is hardly surprising as the Maldives does not have a labour law and even the Maldivian workers are not enjoying workers’ rights. There is no minimum wage.
The inhumane treatment of the foreign workers in Maldives had been documented in the past. However, the problems persist. The cruel treatment of South Asian migrant workers in the Persian Gulf region has been publicised by international human rights organisations. However, few people outside Maldives are aware that South Asian migrant workers are subjected to inhumane treatment in another South Asian country.
Blogger Jaa criticizes the Maldivian society for the increase in xenophobia and details the extent of the inhumane treatment of expatriate workers.
We (supposedly) once were a tolerant country, welcoming all sorts of people and treated them with due respect. But things have changed and for the worse. Notions of equality and humanity has been devalued to such an extent that xenophobia seems almost universal in the country and racism is building up like never before. As such, mistreatment of and disrespect for expats is a truth many are well aware of. People often treat the many unskilled/semi-skilled workers as “subhuman”. I might be tempted to go as far as summarising the prevalent attitude as being a combination of viewing workers as non-tiring machines, incapable and devoid of emotion and feelings and their lives worth no more than a pet cat! They are given accommodation in tiny enclosures made of tin roofing and little ventilation with more workers packed into such places than sardines in a box. They are harassed on the streets and harassed at work. Too many a time do you see workers beg and cry themselves wet over salaries unpaid. Sometimes months would go by without the employer paying the workers their full wage (if at all!) – which the workers often send to their starving families back in their home country. Few regulations keep employers in check – facilitating them to overwork their employers through day and night and give little consideration to the health and safety of the employees. What more, when their “official” work ends, the workers are often made run personal errands and chores for their employer – they really are slaves to the whims and desires of their “master”. I was shocked to find the word “owner” used in the popular local newspaper Haveeru, in reference to the employer of the recently murdered Bangladesh worker in Kulhudhuffushi! (Owner? Isn't that slave mentality??)
Threat of deportation was enough to coerce the Bangladeshi community from organizing their demonstration. It is not surprising as the government of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who has been the President of Maldives for over 28 years, utilizes similar tactics to silence even Maldivian demonstrators. However, beneath the silence the expatriate community, especially Bangladeshis, are still living in fear.