On Saturday March 21, just as the equatorial sun rose over the Indian Ocean and threw its light on the capital, Male, a gang of drugged Maldivian youth entered Lhiyanu Café and demanded free coffee. A 25-year-old Bangladeshi migrant worker, Shaheen Mia, was present.
He was afraid to serve free coffee as he was not the owner. At his refusal, the gang threatened Shaheen and willfully damaged the café. The staff apprised the police, but no action was taken. Next day, Shaheen was brutally stabbed to death. On hearing the news of his son’s death, his father suffered a heart attack in Bangladesh and his mother hospitalised. A family is shattered.
On March 23, Bilal, another Bangladeshi worker was found dead with a cloth wound round his neck in Thoddo Island. Two more Bangladeshis were stabbed on March 29 near the fish market. At around 7:10pm, a worker was also stabbed. Lives for the Bangladesh migrant workers have become precarious and easily expendable.
These series of murders and stabbing sent shockwaves in Bangladesh. These are warning signals of the lack of safety and security of vulnerable Bangladeshi labourers.
The archipelago of Maldives, renowned for its natural beauty and spectacular over water bungalows on lagoons, has enchanting tourist resorts. But behind these luxurious villas lies a tragic tale of sweat and blood of numerous workers, mostly Bangladeshis.
They build these villas in hazardous circumstances. The most difficult and precarious work is theirs. There are an estimated 75,000 Bangladeshi workers in Maldives involved in dangerous activities.
The Bangladeshi workers pay as much as $2,500 to come to the Maldives. Dubious agents in Bangladesh paint a rosy scenario of Maldives. Subsequently workers find themselves in a situation for which they are unprepared. Most arrive with work permits and passports, but are abandoned by their sponsors.
Assured of highly paid jobs, they ultimately end up as construction workers with no certainty of salary. Living in inhuman, cramped quarters without their passports and funds they are left to fend for themselves.
Questionable immigration officers and Bangladeshi brokers work in collusion to bring innocent people from Bangladesh. They are forced to work over 14 hours with little food and less security. On average, the writer found that one Bangladeshi worker died every week when she was high commissioner.
Prolonged negotiation resulted in a few hundred dollars for the families of the deceased. Sometimes even that was not forthcoming. The writer has questioned migrant workers, who were left stranded on the roads of the capital. They had only pieces of papers with mobile numbers of their agents. No one answered the mobile numbers. It was a massive hoax.
Unpaid and overworked, over 500 workers once surrounded the Bangladesh Mission. Ragged, skinny with emaciated faces they were an awful sight. The employers were requested to come to the high commission. Blatant in their talk and ruthless in their behaviour, they refused to pay the salaries or return the passports of the workers.
After concerted efforts and with the assistance of former President Nasheed, some passports were recouped and salaries paid. The employers threatened the writer. She, a high commissioner and dean of the diplomatic corps, had to be given police protection for requesting justice for innocent labourers. Such is the travesty of life in Maldives.
Although migrant workers are essential to the economy, they face brutal treatment, forced labour, non-payment of salaries, and debt bondage. The Bangladeshi workers get the lowest salary, usually $100 or less, which they send home to families dependant on them.
In 2008, the US Department of State placed Maldives in Two Tier Watch List for human trafficking. Later, after the enactment of the Ant-Human Trafficking Act in 2013, Maldives escaped relegation to Tier 3 and international sanctions. However, the US State Department was concerned over “serious problem in anti-trafficking law enforcement and victim protection.” This was realistic as we see in the recent spate of murders and stabbing.
In 2009 with the help of former President Nasheed, the writer legalised over 17,000 Bangladeshi workers and removed a moratorium against them. But the current government has yet to establish minimum wage, unemployment benefits and financial assistance for the families of the deceased. Instead, subject to unjust dismissal, unpaid wage claims and violation of employment rights they are the most vulnerable section of society.
Tension is increasing in Maldives as former President Nasheed has been jailed and is being barred from his own party MDP by the current government. This injustice will further exacerbate an already volatile situation against expatriate workers.
Furthermore, increasing xenophobia, drug addicted Maldivians and gang violence has made the lives of workers bizarre and horrifying. The Bangladeshi expatriates have decided to stage a peaceful protest. The Bangladesh High Commission has installed a 24-hour helpline, but the Maldives government must collaborate to rectify the situation.
Thousands of migrant workers employed in resorts have now been ordered to leave Maldives if they stage their planned protest against violence and discrimination.
The Controller of Immigration proclaimed that protest by migrant workers “would breach the terms of their work permits and those who protested would have their visas cancelled without further warning.”
In response, Tholal, Vice President of Maldives Human Rights Commission stated that the country’s constitution guaranteed anyone on Maldivian soil the right to protest. “A clause in a migrant workers’ contract cannot override the constitution,” he said.
He added that the recent spate of attacks were “hate crimes” and discrimination of migrant workers, who, he pointed out, “make an immense contribution to the economy but have no one to defend them.”
The protest by the Bangladeshis has been called off after the Department of Immigration threatened to cancel their visas.
Once a poor country, Maldives acquired wealth through tourism and fish exports. Male the capital, comparable to a slum, is where one third of the Maldivians live. They need to be better educated with appreciation of the contribution of expatriate labourers who keep their economy alive. Instead, innocent workers are stabbed and killed. Their families in Bangladesh are devastated with indelible tragedy -- death of husbands, brothers, and sons.
It is a story of such criminal and heartbreaking proportion that the world community’s conscience should rebel. It is time to take serious action.
“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” -- Donne.
Leave a Comment