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Bhutan

Executive Summary

Bhutan is a democratic, constitutional monarchy. King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is the head of state, with executive power vested in the cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Lotay Tshering. In 2018 the country held its third general elections, in which approximately 71 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. International election witnesses reported the elections were generally free and fair.

The Royal Bhutan Police (RBP) is responsible for internal security. The Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) is responsible for defending against external threats but also has responsibility for some internal security functions, including counterinsurgency operations, protection of forests, and security for prominent persons. The RBP reports to the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs, and the king is the supreme commander in chief of the RBA. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: political prisoners; criminal libel laws; restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly and association; restrictions on domestic and international freedom of movement; trafficking in persons; and child labor.

The government took steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed human rights abuses.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression.

Freedom of Expression: Defamation can carry criminal penalties, and citizens were cautious in their expression, especially as it related to criticism of the royal family. Local contacts reported increased use of social media to raise complaints of official misconduct or abuse.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and generally expressed a variety of views. The law does not provide specific protections for journalists or guarantee freedom of information, although there were no official restrictions on the media. The law also prohibits media outlets from supporting political parties and prohibits outlets from endorsing candidates during the election period. Journalists engaged in self-censorship, especially relating to the royal family, and were hesitant to criticize politicians with whom they had personal relationships. The government controlled the majority of media outlets, and there were barriers to the creation of private outlets.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Public expression is generally free from censorship, although citizens often engage in self-censorship relating to the royal family. In 2017, legislation established an independent body, the Media Council, tasked with monitoring the media to determine what content is harmful or offensive. Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2019 report noted “press advocates fear that the new body will further erode press freedom and contribute to greater self-censorship,” although the report noted there were no instances of this during the year.

Libel/Slander Laws: In its Freedom in the World 2019 report, Freedom House noted that individuals could use defamation laws to retaliate against critics.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government limited freedom of movement and repatriation. Freedom of movement was sometimes restricted based on the location of one’s permanent residence. Additionally, the government was generally reluctant to repatriate Nepali-speaking refugees who currently live outside of the country.

In-country Movement: The law establishes different categories of citizenship and determines whether a person may be granted a “route permit” to travel internally, which primarily affected foreigners married to a citizen and their children and those who were permitted to reside in the country to conduct business.

Foreign Travel: The law establishes different categories of citizenship under which foreign travel may be restricted. NGOs reported these restrictions primarily affected ethnic Nepalis, although children of single mothers who could not establish citizenship through a Bhutanese father also were affected. Citizens are required to obtain a security clearance certificate to obtain a passport.

Exile: In the early 1990s, the government reportedly forced between 80,000 and 100,000 Nepali-speaking residents to leave the country, following a series of decisions taken during the 1970s and 1980s establishing legal requirements for citizenship.

At the end of 2018, after years of international efforts resulting in the resettlement of thousands of refugees, UNHCR reported approximately 6,500 Nepali-speaking refugees remained in the two refugee camps it administered in Nepal.

There continued to be delays in government consideration of claims to Bhutanese citizenship by refugees in Nepal.

Citizenship: The law provides for revocation of the citizenship of any naturalized citizen who “has shown by act or speech to be disloyal in any manner whatsoever to the king, country, and people.” The law permits reapplication for citizenship after a two-year probationary period. The government may restore citizenship after successful completion of the probation and a finding that the individual was not responsible for any act against the government.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees, but some refugees were eligible for residence permits.

The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) reported that since the 1960s, the country had sheltered Tibetan refugees who were initially located in seven settlements. Tibetan officials reported the Tibetans had largely successfully integrated into society. According to the CTA’s 2017-18 annual report, the latest for which information is available, 1,847 Tibetan refugees lived in the country; approximately 1,654 of them had refugee resident permits. No records indicated any of these refugees held work permits. The Tibetan population was decreasing as Tibetan refugees adopted Bhutanese citizenship, according to the Department of Immigration.

Freedom of Movement: Tibetan refugees reportedly encountered difficulties traveling within and outside the country. Many Tibetan refugees faced obstacles in obtaining travel permits. There were also reports the government did not provide the travel documents necessary for Tibetan refugees to travel beyond India. Some restrictions on movement exist based on categories of citizenship, which have the greatest impact on Nepali-speaking citizens.

Employment: Reports suggested some Tibetan refugees could not obtain security clearances for government jobs or obtain licenses to run private businesses. While Tibetan refugees are not eligible for government employment, the CTA previously reported that at least 13 refugees received business licenses and others found public-sector employment under temporary government contracts.

Access to Basic Services: The government stated Tibetan refugees have the same access to government-provided health care and education as citizens, although some reports stated Tibetans could not enroll in higher education.

Durable Solutions: The government continued to delay implementing a process to identify and repatriate refugees with claims to Bhutanese residency or citizenship.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented the law effectively. There were isolated reports of government corruption during the year.

Corruption: The government took an active role in addressing official corruption through the Public Accounts Committee in the National Assembly and the Royal Audit Authority, which monitored the use of government funds. The Anticorruption Commission (ACC) is authorized to investigate cases of official corruption and allows citizens to submit information to its website regarding corrupt practices. The constitution enables the ACC to act as an independent body although its investigative staff were primarily civil servants answerable to the Royal Civil Service Commission. Based on the UN Convention against Corruption, the 2011 Anticorruption Act expanded the mandate of the ACC to cover the private sector and enhanced the ACC’s investigatory powers and functions. The ACC has the authority to suspend the registration of civil society organizations under investigation and two suspensions were ongoing according to government figures.

The 2018 ACC report detailed 182 complaints of “abuse of functions,” 23 of embezzlement, seven of bribery, and 121 other related corruption offenses. Approximately one-fourth of corruption complaints were against government ministries, which saw a substantial increase in complaints from the prior year, while there was a reduction in complaints against local governments. The ACC forwarded 19 cases for investigation.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires public servants, and persons working for NGOs using public resources, their spouses, and dependents to declare their income, assets, and liabilities.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views. According to international NGOs, local civil society organizations practiced self-censorship to avoid issues perceived as sensitive by the government. Sensitive issues included women’s rights and environmental issues, as well as issues related to the Nepali-speaking community. The government did not permit human rights groups established by the Nepali-speaking community to operate by categorizing them as political organizations that did not promote national unity (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association).

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government did not renew its agreement with the ICRC allowing it to make prison visits to persons detained for crimes against the security of the state after their agreement expired in 2013. The ICRC continued to engage with the government to facilitate prison visits for Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The National Assembly Human Rights Committee conducted human rights research on behalf of the National Assembly. The Civil Society Organization (CSO) Authority has the legal authority to regulate civil society operations. Of the 51 registered CSOs, 41 were categorized as public-benefit organizations and 10 as mutual-benefit organizations. Two CSOs had ongoing registration suspensions pending ACC investigation.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions. Workers can form a union with the participation of at least 12 employees from a single workplace. There is no national trade union. The law does not mention the right to conduct legal strikes. Most of the country’s workforce engages in agriculture, a sector that is not unionized.

The law provides for the right of workers to bargain collectively with employers. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and requires reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Violators may face misdemeanor charges and be compelled to pay damages.

The government effectively enforced applicable laws. Resources, inspections, and remediation were adequate, and penalties were sufficient to deter violations. The law grants workers the right to pursue litigation.

Freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively were respected, although there were few employee unions. No unions formed during the year.

According to a media report, there are two wage rates in the country: the national minimum wage rate, and the national work force wage rate. The national minimum wage rate applies to anyone working in the country irrespective of nationality. The national work force wage rate, which is higher, applies only to Bhutanese nationals. The country’s minimum wage when converted to a monthly income was above the poverty line.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits most forms of forced or compulsory labor, but the government did not always effectively enforce applicable laws. The law makes exceptions with regard to prison labor, work that might be required during an emergency, and work required for “important local and public” celebrations. The law criminalizes trafficking for illegal, but not exploitative, purposes. Violations of the law with respect to worst forms of child labor, forced and compulsory labor, improvement notice, prohibition notice, nonpayment of compensation, minimum age of admission into employment, employing foreigners without permit, and not complying with permits issued by the government are felonies subject to three to five years’ imprisonment. Resources, inspections, and remediation were adequate, and penalties were sufficient to deter violations. In addition, labor inspectors often mediated cases of nonpayment of wages and passport withholding in lieu of civil or criminal investigations.

Some domestic servants working in private homes, including Indian children, where the Ministry of Labor and Human Resources lacks jurisdiction are victims of forced labor. Officials relied on citizens to report forced labor of domestics directly to police. In addition civil society reported traffickers exploited Bhutanese students in forced labor abroad, including through student-worker programs (see section 7.c).

Migrant workers from India who worked in the country’s construction and hydropower sectors and Indian women and girls who worked in domestic service or as caregivers were vulnerable to forced labor. The Ministry of Labor and Human Resources noted approximately 54,972 migrants worked in the country as of June 2018, mostly from India. The Ministry of Labor and Human Resources registered foreign migrant workers in the country, monitored working conditions, and produced and disseminated pamphlets advising workers of their rights, including full and prompt payment of wages and entitlement to retain personal identity documents. The UN Office of Drugs and Crime noted an increase in Indian child domestic workers in local homes, noting they were often brought in illegally and were hard to track. Young, rural citizens were transported to urban areas, generally by relatives, for domestic work, and some of these individuals were subjected to domestic servitude. Unconfirmed reports suggested that girls who worked as entertainers in drayungs (karaoke bars) were subjected to labor and sex trafficking through debt and threats of physical abuse.

Also see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The minimum age for employment is 13, and the minimum age for hazardous work is 18. Children younger than age 18 are prohibited from working in dangerous occupations, including mining, construction, sanitary services, carpet weaving, or serving in bars.

While child labor laws were generally enforced, the Ministry of Labor and Human Resources reported that limited resources placed constraints on the number of inspections conducted and inspectors employed. Penalties included up to nine years’ of nonbailable imprisonment and were generally sufficient to deter violations.

Children performed agricultural and construction work, completed chores on family farms, or worked in shops and restaurants after school and during holidays. Child labor also occurred in hotels and automobile workshops. Girls were employed primarily as domestic workers, where they were vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits employment discrimination for employees and job applicants and prescribes equal pay for equal work. Nepal-based organizations representing refugees claimed that Nepali-speaking citizens were subject to discrimination with respect to employment and occupation (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The national minimum wage was greater than the national poverty level. The law defines the workday as eight hours per day with a one-hour lunch break, and employers are required to grant regular rest days; however, these laws were sometimes difficult to enforce. According to one media report, although the government extended maternity leave by three months in 2016, most organizations in the private sector had not implemented the new rule. Work in excess of the legal workday was mandated to be paid at 1.5 times the normal rate.

Government occupational safety and health standards are current and appropriate. Labor regulations grant workers the right to leave work situations that endanger their health and safety without jeopardy to their employment.

The government generally enforced minimum wage, work hours, and occupational health and safety standards, fines and imprisonment effectively in the formal sector. Such penalties generally were sufficient to deter violations. The number of labor inspectors was insufficient to cover the country’s industries. Labor regulations were not effectively applied in the informal sector.

Maldives

Executive Summary

The Republic of Maldives is a multiparty constitutional democracy. In September 2018 voters elected Ibrahim Mohamed Solih president. Observers considered the election mostly free and fair despite a flawed pre-election process, which was overseen by the former administration. Parliamentary elections held on April 6 were well administered and transparent according to local and international observers.

Maldives Police Service (MPS) is responsible for internal security and reports to the Ministry of Home Affairs. Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) is responsible for external security and disaster relief and reports to the Ministry of Defence. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: allegations of torture by government authorities; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; trafficking in persons; criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct; and the lack of a legal framework recognizing independent trade unions.

The government took some steps to investigate officials who committed human rights abuses, including enforced disappearances, and established investigative commissions.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, except on religious matters, and the government generally respected this right.

Freedom of Expression: Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Community Empowerment regulations prohibit publishing literary material without first seeking authorization from the National Bureau of Classification. The regulations define publication of literary material as “any writing, photograph, or drawing that has been made publicly accessible electronically or by way of printing, including publicizing or circulating on the internet.”

The constitution prohibits utterances contrary to tenets of Islam or the government’s religious policies. In September the MPS arrested a local citizen for “criticizing Islam” on his twitter profile, days after he reported receiving death threats online after he claimed he was an atheist and would encourage prosecular activities on his island. As of September the MPS was also investigating the death threats made against him.

On October 10, the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Community Empowerment ordered the human rights-focused NGO Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) to “suspend all activities” for the duration of an MPS investigation into “anti-Islamic” rhetoric used in the MDC’s 2015 “Preliminary Report on Radicalization in Maldives,” which explored institutional practices such as teaching of Islam, enforcement of laws, public awareness and education, social media and the work of religious organizations. The ministry cited Article 39 of the Associations Regulation in their suspension decision, which authorizes the Registrar of Associations to suspend associations for no more than a year in cases in which they “engage in any activity that under the laws and regulations of the Maldives is specified as an act that undermines national security or societal harmony.” In a press statement defending the suspension, the government argued the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights noted freedom of speech and expression could not be exercised “maliciously, in the form of hate-speech, or in a manner that contributes to public discord and enmity.” The investigation was initiated at the request of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs following an online campaign calling for the government to ban the MDC. Local media reported the MPS issued summons to the report authors and MDN Executive Director Shahindha Ismail to submit to police questioning. After the MPS found that the report mocked Islam, the government removed the MDC from the registry of associations on November 5, formally banning their activities.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Criticism of the government and debates on societal problems were commonplace, but media did not question Islamic values or the government’s policies on religion.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Parliament Privileges Act allows authorities to force journalists to reveal their sources, but authorities did not routinely take advantage of this provision. Media reported higher levels of self-censorship in reporting on religion due to concerns about harassment and threats. Several outlets continued to avoid publishing bylines to protect their journalists from possible punitive actions or harassment. NGO and journalist sources stated media practiced self-censorship on matters related to Islam due to fears of harassment from being labeled “anti-Islamic.”

There were no known restrictions on domestic publications, nor were there prohibitions on the import of foreign publications or materials, except for those containing pornography or material otherwise deemed objectionable to Islamic values, such as Bibles and idols for worship. The restriction applies only to items for public distribution; tourists destined for resort islands were not prohibited from carrying Bibles and other religious paraphernalia for their personal use. In August, the Maldives Customs service confiscated 109 books from a public book fair in Male organized by a private bookshop for content that “violated the principles of Islam,” but no charges were pressed.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. Authorities reported, however, that migrant workers who overstayed their visas were held in the Hulhumale Detention Center for weeks or sometimes even years while awaiting the necessary travel documents from their respective governments prior to deportation. NGOs also reported concerns with a September High Court ruling declaring migrant workers who are arrested cannot be released until they identify a local national who will take responsibility for monitoring them until the conclusion of a possible trial.

f. Protection of Refugees

Refoulement: The law obligates the state not to expel, return, or extradite a person where there is substantial evidence to believe the person would be in danger of being subjected to torture. The HRCM’s sixth annual antitorture report investigating one case involving the government violating the principle of nonrefoulement in the case of one foreign detainee. HRCM reported the case remains under investigation and the foreigner remained in the country as of September.

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented the law effectively. Nonetheless, officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity and the government and judicial system have been slow to investigate and prosecute cases of corruption. Suspected cases of corruption in the judicial system also stymied the ability to provide additional oversight. There were isolated reports of government corruption during the year.

Corruption: The independent Anti-Corruption Commission has responsibility for investigating corruption charges involving senior government officials. According to NGOs, executive interference, a narrow definition of corruption in the law, and the lack of a provision to investigate and prosecute illicit enrichment limited the commission’s work.

In December 2018 President Solih established a Presidential Commission on Corruption and Asset Recovery to investigate corruption cases originating between February 2012 and November 2018. As of December the commission had not issued a report of its findings.

In August parliament removed former Supreme Court judge Abdulla Didi over eight ethics standards violations, including alleged abuse of authority and receipt of a one million dollar bribe to sentence former president Mohamed Nasheed to jail under terrorism charges. Ghaniya Abdul Gahoor, Didi’s spouse and former deputy ambassador to Malaysia, was also removed from her position during the investigation.

Financial Disclosure: The constitution requires parliamentarians to submit annually to the secretary general of parliament a statement of all property owned, monetary assets, business interests, and liabilities. The constitution also requires the president and each cabinet minister to submit a similar statement to the auditor general and for each judge to submit a similar statement to the Judicial Service Commission (JSC). It was unclear whether all officials submitted these statements, which do not require public disclosure. The law does not stipulate criminal or administrative sanctions for noncompliance and does not require the vice president to disclose income and assets.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A number of domestic human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials often were cooperative and responsive to their views. The government deregistered and formally banned human-rights focused NGO MDN in November for using language the Ministry of Islamic Affairs argued criticized Islam in the MDC’s 2015 “Preliminary Report on Radicalization in Maldives.”

NGOs reported that although sporadically enforced, a 2015 associations regulation threatened their freedom of operation. The regulation requires human rights and other NGOs to seek government approval before applying for domestic assistance above MVR 25,000 ($1,630) or for any foreign assistance. The regulation also requires organizations to submit a membership registry to the government and grants the registrar of associations sweeping powers to dissolve organizations and enter organizations to obtain documents without a search warrant.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The HRCM is a constitutionally recognized independent institution with a mandate to promote and protect human rights under the constitution, Maldivian Islamic law, and regional and international human rights conventions ratified by the country. NIC is a constitutionally recognized independent institution with a mandate to investigate allegations of human rights violations by law enforcement agencies and employees, and it has the authority to forward any cases with criminal elements to police for further investigation. Both the ruling coalition and NGOs questioned the independence of the HRCM, which they reported was biased towards the former government.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The constitution provides for workers’ freedom of association; however, there is no specific law protecting the right to freedom of association, which is required to allow unions to register and operate without interference and discrimination. As a result, the court system refused to recognize trade unions officially. Worker organizations are usually treated as civil society organizations or associations without the right to engage in collective bargaining. Police and armed forces do not have the right to form unions. The Freedom of Peaceful Assembly Act effectively prohibits strikes by workers in the resort sector, the country’s largest money earner. Employees in the following services are also prohibited from striking: hospitals and health centers, electricity companies, water providers, telecommunications providers, prison guards, and air traffic controllers. The Home Ministry enforces the act by arresting workers who go on strike, but there were no such arrests during the year. In June resort workers from JA Manafaru went on a hunger strike to protest the resort management’s decision to dismiss several employees. The conflict was resolved, without any dismissals, after Tourism Minister Ali Waheed went to the resort and held discussions with the management and representatives of the resort workers’ association, Tourism Employees Association of the Maldives (TEAM). TEAM noted this incident indicated the government is capable and willing to hold tripartite discussions even if it is not mandated under current domestic legislation.

The government did not always enforce applicable laws. Resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate, and penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. The Labor Relations Authority (LRA) is mandated to oversee compliance of the Employment Act and its related regulations. The Employment Tribunal examines and adjudicates legal matters arising between employers and employees and other employment problems, but its processes are cumbersome and complicated. In addition, because the LRA does not regularly screen labor violations such as nonpayment of wages for elements of trafficking, the Employment Tribunal adjudicates some potential trafficking cases. Violators who refused to correct violations or pay fines were referred to the courts, whose decisions often were ignored. The cases are heard in the Dhivehi language, which few foreign workers understood. Foreign workers may not file a case with the tribunal unless they appoint a representative to communicate for them in the local language. If an employer fails to comply with a decision of the tribunal, the case must be submitted to the Civil Court, which often delays decisions. TEAM reported the judicial system continued to delay final decisions on numerous such cases, some older than six years of age. The Employment Tribunal only hears cases submitted within three months for cases involving unfair dismissals and within six months of the alleged offense for all other violations of the Employment Act. A September 2018 amendment to the Employment Tribunal regulation that states dismissed or withdrawn appeals can only be resubmitted once, after paying a MVR 500 ($32) fine, was still in place. Previously, there was no restriction on the number of times such cases could be resubmitted.

Under the law, some workers’ organizations were established as civil society organizations, specifically in the tourism, education, health, and shipping (seafarers’) sectors, although these functioned more as cooperative associations and had very limited roles in labor advocacy. The Teachers Association of the Maldives (TAM) and TEAM were among the more active workers’ organizations, along with the Maldivian Ports Workers. In September the workers’ associations, including TEAM, TAM, Maldivian Ports Worker, and newly established Maldives Health Professionals Unions jointly registered an umbrella organization called the Maldives Trade Union Congress, which aims to work in solidarity for the rights of workers in all major industries.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

All forms of forced or compulsory labor are prohibited, but the government did not effectively enforce applicable laws.

Resources, inspections, and remediation were generally inadequate, and penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. The foreign worker population, especially migrant workers from Bangladesh, were particularly vulnerable to forced labor in the construction industry, as were Sri Lankan and Indian women engaged in domestic work. Maldives Immigration detained undocumented workers at Hulhumale Detention Center, an immigration-processing center near Male, until deportation or repatriation. There were continued reports of bureaucratic delays in receiving passports from foreign missions for undocumented immigrants and substandard facilities at the immigration-processing center. Maldives Immigration reported it screened the workers for victims of trafficking, but there were reports some of the detained and deported undocumented workers should have been identified as trafficking victims.

Under the penal code, forced labor carries a penalty of up to eight-years’ imprisonment. Under section 29 of the Maldives Prevention of Human Trafficking Act, confiscation, alteration, or withholding of identity and travel documents is a crime, and perpetrators are subject to up to five-years’ imprisonment. In 2015 parliament approved the National Action Plan to Combat Trafficking in Persons for 2015-19. The penalty for human trafficking is a maximum sentence of 10 years. As of December the MPS and Maldives Immigration reported they were investigating more than 35 labor recruiters or agencies allegedly engaged in fraudulent practices. In September, Maldives Immigration denied entry to two Bangladeshi nationals reportedly engaged in trafficking Bangladeshi migrant workers to the country. Employee associations reported concerns the alleged traffickers were deported with no further action or attempts to identify local traffickers who worked with them to traffic victims.

The LRA, under the Ministry of Economic Development, recommended to the ministry and Maldives Immigration the blacklisting of companies that violated the law, precluding the companies from bringing in new workers until violations were rectified the LRA reported, however, that the Ministry of Economic Development and Maldives Immigration did not always take their recommendations to blacklist and allowed companies to continue operations. In addition to blacklisting, the law allows a fine of not more than MVR 50,000 ($3,250) for forced labor and other violations of the Employment Act, but the LRA reported this amount was not sufficient to deter violations by large companies.

As of September, Maldives Immigration reported the number of documented foreign workers at approximately 200,000. They estimated there were an additional 63,000 undocumented foreign workers in the country, predominantly men from Bangladesh and other South Asian countries. Some of the foreign workers in the country were subject to forced labor in the construction and tourism sectors. Both the LRA and TEAM noted an increasing trend of resorts hiring third party subcontractors to work in departments such as maintenance, landscaping, and laundry services. These subcontractors reportedly hired undocumented migrant workers who received a lower salary, work longer hours, and often experience delays in payment of salaries and work without a legal employment contract. Most victims of forced labor suffered the following practices: debt bondage, holding of passports by employers, fraudulent offers of employment, not being paid the promised salary, or not being paid at all. Domestic workers, especially migrant female domestic workers, were sometimes trapped in forced servitude, in which employers used threats, intimidation, and in some cases sexual violence to prevent them from leaving.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor and sets the minimum age for employment at 16, with an exception for children who voluntarily participate in family businesses. The law prohibits employment of children under age 18 in “any work that may have a detrimental effect on health, education, safety, or conduct,” but there was no list of such activities. The law prescribes a fine of no less than MVR 1,000 ($65) and no more than MVR 5,000 ($325) for infractions.

The Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services, the Ministry of Economic Development, and the Family and Child Protection Unit of the MPS are tasked with receiving, investigating, and taking action on complaints of child labor. According to the LRA, the MPS and the Ministry of Gender, Family, and Social Services none of the complaints received related to child labor or employment of minors. Additionally, the LRA found no cases of child labor during its regular labor inspections during the year. Resources, inspections, and remediation were inadequate, because no additional resources were dedicated specifically to uncover additional child labor cases.

Government officials and civil society groups reported concerns that some Bangladesh migrant workers in the construction and service sectors were under 18, but possessed passports stating they were older. Civil society groups also reported that minors were used in the transport of drugs for criminal gangs.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law and regulations prohibit discrimination with respect to employment and occupation based on race, color, sex, political opinion, religion, social origin, marital status, or family obligations. The government generally enforced those laws and regulations, with some exceptions that included unequal pay for women and discrimination in working and living conditions of foreign migrant workers, especially from Bangladesh.

According to NGOs, there were no policies in place to provide equal opportunities for women’s employment, despite provisions in the constitution and the law. The law and constitution prohibit discrimination against women for employment or for equal pay or equal income, but women tended to earn less than men for the same work and also because they tended to work in lower-paying industries. The absence of child-care facilities made it difficult for women with children to remain employed after they had children.

The Employment Act establishes an Employment Tribunal to examine and protect the rights of employers and employees in legal matters and other employment problems.

Discrimination against migrant workers was pervasive (see section 7.b.).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The country does not have a national policy on minimum wage. Wages in the private sector were commonly set by contract between employers and employees and were based on rates for similar work in the public sector. According to 2016 Asian Development Bank statistics, 8.2 percent of citizens lived below the poverty level of MVR 29 ($1.90) per day.

The law establishes maximum hours of work, overtime, annual and sick leave, maternity leave, and guidelines for workplace safety. In March, President Solih announced civil servants would be allowed six months of maternity leave, instead of the previously allocated three months, and one month’s paternity leave instead of the previously allocated three days. The law provides for a 48-hour per week limit on work with a compulsory 24-hour break if employees work six days consecutively. Certain provisions in the law, such as overtime and public-holiday pay, do not apply to emergency workers, air and sea crews, executive staff of any company, or workers who are on call. Employee associations reported some government schools and hospitals placed a cap on overtime pay. The law mandates implementation of a safe workplace, procurement of secure tools and machinery, verification of equipment safety, use of protective equipment to mitigate health hazards, employee training in the use of protective gear, and appropriate medical care, but there were no national standards for safety measures, and as a result such measures were at the discretion of employers. The LRA also reported difficulties in assessing safety standards during inspections due to the lack of national standards. In January the government published safety regulations for the construction industry which requires employers to provide employees with safety equipment such as helmets, belts, and masks, but NGOs reported the government failed to monitor implementation of these standards. All employers are required to provide health insurance for foreign workers.

In 2013 parliament approved the country’s accession to eight core International Labor Organization conventions, but the government had not finalized the bills required for the conventions to be legislated into domestic law as of December.

The LRA and Employment Tribunal are charged with implementing employment law, and the LRA conducted workplace investigations and provided dispute resolution mechanisms to address complaints from workers. The most common findings related to lack of or problematic provisions included in employment contracts and job descriptions, overtime and other pay, and problems related to leave. The LRA preferred to issue notices to employers to correct problems, because cases were deemed closed once fines were paid. The LRA typically gave employers one to three months to correct problems but lacked sufficient labor inspectors and travel funding to enforce compliance.

Migrant workers were particularly vulnerable to exploitation, worked in unacceptable conditions, and were frequently forced to accept low wages to repay their debts with employment agencies, especially within the construction sector. Female migrant workers, especially in the domestic service sector were especially vulnerable to exploitation. Employers in the construction and tourism industry often housed foreign workers at their worksites. Some migrant workers were exposed to dangerous working conditions, especially in the construction industry, and worked in hazardous environments without proper ventilation. During the year there were multiple accidents at construction sites in Male, including the death of a migrant worker struck by a falling rock at a construction site in Hulhumale in February.

The Employment Act protects workers who remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment.

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