Workers exploited in Maldives, India drags its feet
By Devirupa Mitra | ENS - NEW DELHI
Published: 06th Oct 2013 08:46:56 AM
In India, an unscrupulous agent fires the imagination of a semi-literate worker from a small town with dreams of easy money at a foreign land. He arrives there, but to a very different and difficult reality. His passport confiscated, he becomes a virtual prisoner and after a few months, even his salary stops being paid.
This is not yet another ill-treatment saga of an Indian worker in Gulf, but in India’s backyard, the Indian Ocean. Virtually under the radar, thousands of unskilled and semi-skilled workers arrive every year in the Maldives. Vulnerable to dishonest agents, employers and unresponsive local government machinery, most of them are forced to return to India without getting their wages and facing untold misery.
Last year in October, 25-year-old driver Harendra Kumar from Uttar Pradesh’s Mau district and 23-year-old welder Santosh Kumar Ram from Gopalganj in Bihar began a similar journey from their small villages to the sunny Maldives. In toto, they paid the Indian agents over Rs 1 lakh to get their documents in order. “When we reached, our employer said that he would pay only $200 per month, not $250 as the agent promised,” Kumar told The Sunday Standard on phone from Mau. Their accommodation and food supply were so bad that within three months, another Indian who travelled with them left the Maldives.
“Every month, we used to go to him and ask for money… He used to tell us that he doesn’t have any right now, next month, next month,” said Ram.
Finally after four months with no wages, the duo went to Male to the Indian high commission in June. “They told us to make a formal complaint and they would try to do something to get back the money,” he said.
Not surprisingly, they never got their six months of wages. On the contrary, their employer declared them absconders and the two were deported back to India last week. “We returned totally empty-handed,” said Santosh.
Their story is not new for the Indian high commission, which has documented 550 cases of complaints of Indian workers not getting wages, illegal confiscation of passports or not being allowed to return to India for any emergency, in the last one year.
But, as a diplomatic source indicated, “These 550 cases are perhaps only 10 percent of the actual number of ill-treatment cases, as most of them come to the high commission only as a last resort”.
There are reported to be around 22,000 Indian nationals in the Maldives, of which around 15,000 and 17,000 are estimated to be in the unskilled and semiskilled worker category.
With a small population, the Maldives has a large number of guest workers, mainly from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and India. While Filipinos are mostly working in the medical sector, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis and Indians make up the majority of the blue-collar workers, mainly in the construction industry.
However, faced with similar onslaught of complaints, Sri Lanka has made it extremely difficult to get permit to emigrate to the Maldives for employment. Last week, Bangladesh also tightened its rules, to ensure only workers with their documents verified from the high commission in Male are allowed to leave Dhaka. Only India has yet to take major steps to protect its workers.
A Bangladeshi high commission official told The Sunday Standard that his country is yet to strangle the manpower supply, as they found that while officially only 1,000 workers were registered with the embassy, it was estimated that around 27,000 nationals were actually working in the Maldives.
“This makes it very difficult for us to help them out to stop exploitation and work with their complaints,” he said. In fact, both Indian and Bangladeshi diplomatic sources confirmed that the local Maldivian authorities were “not very positive” in resolving the complaints of guest workers or regulating their employment strictly.
Ram recounts that when he threatened his employer that he would complain to the Indian embassy, the Maldivian employer dismissed it. “Indian high commission can’t do anything, he told us”. Admitting that the high commission has very little success rate in getting owed wages back to workers. They require the cooperation from the local government, which has not been assertive.