Report: Social issues faced by undocumented expat workers in Maldives

Photo: Coralglass

Expatriate workers are skilled people who migrate from their home country to another country, simply for the purpose of earning money. Currently, these workers are an important part of the economic growth and development of Maldives. Not only are they a majority part of the Maldivian workforce, they are nearly a third of Maldives.

According to the World Bank estimates, the percentage of migrant workers in Maldives rose from 3.89% of the population in 1990 to 25.87% by 2015. In-fact, the World Bank contends that Maldives has the largest proportion of international migrants in all of South Asia. Majority of these workers are young Bangladeshi men who are low-cost labor and low skilled.

While the work done by these migrant workers has contributed largely to the economic growth of Maldives, numerous issues has risen due to the increase in the number of migrant workers entering the country. Among these, the social and economic issue related to undocumented or illegal migrant workers have lately become a national crisis in the country. Approximately 63,000 of the migrant work-force in Maldives are known to be undocumented.

Although having undocumented migrants may seem like a trivial and easy matter to rectify, the reality is that many have become victim to a continuous cycle of apathy, corruption, negligence and inaction which has led to several social issues in Maldives.

The first and foremost major social issue faced by majority of these undocumented migrant workers is the ineligibility for medical or legal rights, let alone having basic living health conditions. While the legally employed migrant workers are by contract eligible to health care due to the employee’s health insurance, the undocumented migrant workers have to rely on the low income they are provided.

Despite the low-income, they attempt to save up as much as they can to send it back home to their families by refraining from seeking medical care in Maldives, unless the ailment becomes extremely serious. This results in further complication in their medical conditions and in some cases indulging in criminal acts to earn additional money, increasing social complications.

Apart from this, the undocumented migrants are also ineligible to basic entitlements from their employer, such as having to live in sub-human conditions like in overcrowded and unhygienic places. Since their employers are not obligated to provide housing for their undocumented migrant employees, the workers have the responsibility of finding their own accommodation in Maldives.

Pictures of living conditions of migrants at B. Bodufinolhu. Photo: Navaanavai

Due to this, the workers mainly share accommodation and due to scarcity of affordable housing, the only option left for them is for a large amount of people to accommodate in small rooms. Furthermore, they are forced to shower, cook and eat in the same clustered room with no privacy, despite being adults. Often these individuals have to take turns sleeping as well. During the current pandemic, the 96 cases of Covid-19 found on two floors of a building is undoubtedly due to the sub-human living conditions of migrant workers.

What adds to the existing social problems that are faced by the expat workers is the imbalance of income generation. From what has been observed in Maldives, it is seen that undocumented workers often work freelance and in some cases, earn more than their counterparts employed legally. This encourages the foreigners to work illegally, due to the imbalance in the income earned between those who are documented and undocumented; with the undocumented expats earning more.

The language barrier between locals and migrants creates problems at most times, demonstrating the insufficient flow of information and awareness. While a lot of migrants are quickly able to adopt the spoken version of the Maldivian language ‘Dhivehi’, only a few are able to learn how to read and write the language. Therefore, without translation, the expat workers might go on without noticing the key information.This can make the individuals susceptible to maltreatment and fraud.

Having to live in a country with little or no information can be terrifying. If any, the agents of these expat workers would have shown a picture of paradise on Earth to the individuals, for which the reality is that only a handful of these individuals getting to see the luxurious side of Maldives, while the rest of them having to face the inhabitant island of Maldives.

A toxic trait in almost any country in the world is xenophobia and racism. Having a difference in language, physical appearance, dressing style and behavior can generally distinguish the expat workers from locals. Racism and xenophobic slurs has become a common thing among some people nowadays. Despite the younger generation  being more aware of things, the dark side still lingers on, even within various levels of management, power and authority. Due to this, unfortunate events such as public shaming or degradation, xenophobic slur, discrimination on various levels and sometimes, physical violence have surfaced through the islands multiple times.

With the risks of an undocumented expat worker being subject to levels of discrimination and abuse is much likely, and in most cases, far more severe. If their passports are taken away or if they have no official document to prove their identity country, they mostly are and have already been targeted as victims for human trafficking. With no way to return back to their homeland, their only choice may be to stay silent and earn what little they can in any way they can to support their families back at home.


  • Ingraining humanity and awareness into the systems of the country as much as possible, to shape young minds to be more kind, caring and loving people.
  • A more sensitized community should be created in general where all members of the community, both local and foreign are treated justly and equally.
  • Finding the root cause of such a high number of undocumented expat workers and putting an end to it.
  • Changing the policy levels as it is very important to protect the rights of expat workers, especially the victims of human trafficking.
  • Detection of the vulnerable and providing assistance to these communities to be done with care and support, without involving policing bodies.
  • Authorities need to track and prioritize data collection, sorting and interpretation as well as translating the numbers and figures into the policies being created and make the data more transparent to general public.
  • Calling out the perpetrators and those aiding in the wide networks of human trafficking should be of high priority and brought to justice.

Despite the fact that hiring undocumented migrants for jobs is illegal, it is still done on a very large scale nationwide as the country becomes dependent on cheap labor. This can create a cycle whereby both the community and the workers are co-dependent. Before the matter gets further worse than the current situation, it needs to be stopped and rectified as quickly as possible.