HRW notes governments failure to protect migrant workers amid Covid-19

Security personnel patrol as Bangladeshi workers (C) living in the accommodation block are put under quarantine after positive cases of COVID-19 coronavirus were found in the area, in Male on May 9, 2020. | Photo: Ahmed Shurau

Male’, Maldives – Human Rights Watch (HRW) has criticised the Maldivian government in its World Report 2021, for failing to protect the country’s expatriate population and rights groups last year during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report published by the international NGO stated that Maldives’ response to the pandemic exposed inequities and abuse, in particular highlighting the government crackdown on protests staged by migrant workers.

Throughout 2020, foreign staff employed by various companies took to the streets, protesting unpaid wages and inhumane living conditions, that were brought to the spotlight amid the fiscal and economic repercussions of COVID-19. The protests spotlighted ingrained abuses against migrant workers, which account for roughly one-third of the Maldivian population.

Concerns were renewed from rights groups and the general public over the continued exploitation of expatriate workers in the Maldives, which include withholding of wages, passport confiscation, human trafficking, poor living conditions, and other human rights violations. The aforementioned low quality of life resulted in a disproportionate effect of the COVID-19 outbreak on the country’s vast migrant population.

In its report, HRW highlighted that more than 80 migrants were arbitrarily arrested during protests in July 2020 alone, after which several were deported without their owed salaries. However, the NGO noted that Maldivian authorities addressed some labour concerns, such as the regularisation employment programme for undocumented workers and the establishment of a national task force on the issue.

The government also initiated efforts to repatriate undocumented workers during and after the lockdown instated during the pandemic, closing out 2020 with 8,710 undocumented expatriates returned to their home countries, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

HRW also acknowledged the COVID-19 clinics established for migrant workers that did not require them to show documentation, as part of the government’s pandemic response.

In addition to the migrant worker situation, HRW criticised the government’s lack of action to address the intimidation of rights activists, in particular noting the calls to ban the women’s rights organisation, Uthema.

A social media campaign demanding the government to ban the local NGO began in June 2020, after Uthema published its shadow report on the Maldivian government’s commitments to uphold the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The NGO refuted the criticism, stating that their work was being grossly misrepresented and that the report was based on credible information from government institutions as well as input from women across the country.

HRW stated that the current administration, under President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih administration, failed to adequately investigate extremist groups for targeting social justice activists such as Uthema.

The Maldives government’s poor response to the Covid-19 crisis magnified existing abuses, especially for migrant workers, and exposed the government’s failure to address online intimidation and other threats by extremist groups against rights activists.

Patricia Gossman, the associate Asia director at HRW

Furthermore, HRW stated that the government also failed to adequately consult local communities or enact sufficient measures to mitigate the risk and effects of floods and erosion, despite Maldives being one of the most vulnerable countries to the dangers of climate change.

Maldives has long held a prominent stance against climate change in the international arena, including advocacy at the COP summits and the country’s call to criminalise ecocide at the International Criminal Court (ICC). However, the government faces criticism from environmental activists and NGOs over continuing to reclaim land and lagoon areas for development purposes, often in contrast with the ruling party’s own electoral pledges.

Despite the state’s various pledges to tackle imminent threats to the environment, local NGOs, movements and advocates have accused the government of failing to ‘walk the talk’ and live up to electoral pledges made with respect to sustainable development and halting environmental degradation.