The harsh treatment of foreign workers in the Maldives during the Covid-19 pandemic has left many migrants vulnerable to abuse, Human Rights Watch said today.
Migrant workers in the Maldives face a range of entrenched abuses from employers, including deceptive recruitment practices, wage theft, passport confiscation, unsafe living and working conditions, and excessive work demands, which indicate forced labour and violate domestic and international standards.
The spread of Covid-19 and the lockdown to contain it has exacerbated these conditions, as workers face job loss, unpaid leave, reduced salaries, and forced work without pay.
"The Covid-19 crisis has compounded perennial abuses and toppled whatever precarious existence migrant workers in the Maldives may have achieved," said Shayna Bauchner, Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The government's failure to effectively regulate recruitment and employment practices puts already vulnerable migrants into abusive situations, then traps them there."
Migrants often fall victim to "quota trading," a corrupt practice in which employers who are able to obtain permission to bring in more workers than they need "trade" them with others, leaving workers unable to even identify their actual employers and hold them to account.
The UN special rapporteur on torture reported after a November 2019 visit to the Maldives that "Migrant workers would often have to share collective accommodation with up to 200 other workers, sleeping in shifts in deplorable hygienic conditions." Two workers at a construction project told Human Rights Watch that 12 to 15 workers would live together in 2.5-by-3.5-meter rooms.
The Maldives government should initiate comprehensive reforms to protect migrant workers' rights. Labour rights protections and holding accountable abusive employers, agents, and corrupt officials are necessary for developing mutually beneficial arrangements between employers and migrant workers. Foreign and national companies can play a prominent role in ensuring that they do not benefit from forced labour and other rights violations, and should comply with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.