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 officially recognize trade unions. Worker organizations were 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.
The government did not always enforce applicable laws. Resources, inspections, and remediation remained inadequate, and penalties were not commensurate with other laws involving the denial of civil rights. 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 remained 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. The LRA requested the Ministry of Economic Development to blacklist violators who refused to correct violations or pay fines, but as of September the ministry had only blacklisted one-half of the violators requested by the LRA. Employment Tribunal 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. The Tourism Employees Association of Maldives (TEAM) reported the judicial system continued to delay final decisions on numerous such cases, some older than six years. 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. The law states that dismissed or withdrawn appeals may only be resubmitted once, after paying a monetary fine. Under the law some workers’ organizations were established as civil society organizations, including in the tourism, fisheries, 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), TEAM, and the Maldives Trade Union Congress, an umbrella organization formed by TEAM, Maldivian Ports Workers, and Maldives Health Professionals Union were among the more active workers’ organizations.
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 remained generally inadequate, and penalties were not commensurate with those for other serious crimes. The foreign worker population, especially migrant workers from Bangladesh, were particularly vulnerable to forced labor or labor trafficking in the construction industry, as were Sri Lankan and Indian women engaged in domestic work. Authorities expanded programs allowing undocumented workers to become regularized or return to their home countries without penalty. In previous years undocumented workers were detained at Hulhumale Detention Center, an immigration-processing center near Male, until deportation or repatriation. The Ministry of Economic Development announced that more than 25,000 undocumented workers had been repatriated from April 2020 to September. There were continued reports of bureaucratic delays in receiving passports from foreign missions for foreign workers seeking to return to their home countries. Maldives Immigration did not have in place any mechanisms to screen workers for victims of labor trafficking prior to repatriation, and there were reports that some of the repatriated undocumented workers should have been identified as human trafficking victims.
Under the penal code, conviction of 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 convicted 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 conviction of human trafficking is a maximum sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment. As of September, the MPS and Maldives Immigration reported they were continuing to investigate more than 35 labor recruiters or agencies allegedly engaged in fraudulent practices. In August human trafficking charges were raised against a sitting member of parliament, who was also managing director of a construction company investigated during the previous year. The investigation focused on suspicion the company “carried out forced labor and acts of exploitation against foreigners, acted in a manner that has led to human trafficking, failed to make payment of fees required to be paid to the government on behalf of these workers and violated the rights of these workers.” Preliminary hearings continued as of October. Employee associations continued to report concerns the alleged traffickers were deported with no further action or attempts to identify local traffickers who worked with them to traffic victims.
Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations by large companies and were not commensurate with other analogous serious crimes for which conviction carried sentences of imprisonment.
As of August, Maldives Immigration reported the number of documented foreign workers at approximately 112,085. It estimated 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 NGOs noted a continuing 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, worked longer hours, and often experienced delays in payment of salaries and work without a legal employment contract. Most victims of forced labor continued to suffer 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 younger than 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 monetary fine 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 acting 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. In September the Ministry of Health reported that recent assessments found children were regularly engaged in the transport of drugs for criminal gangs. NGOs reported children were also engaged in forced labor in domestic work. The LRA found no cases of child labor during its regular labor inspections during the year. Resources, inspections, and remediation remained inadequate because no additional resources were dedicated specifically to uncover additional child labor cases. The government did not effectively enforce child labor laws. The penalties for conviction of commercial sexual exploitation of children were commensurate with those for other serious crimes, and the Child Rights Protection Act criminalizes the child exploitation, including the use of children to sell drugs with penalties for conviction of imprisonment.
Civil society groups continued to report concerns that some Bangladesh migrant workers in the construction and service sectors were younger than 18 but possessed passports stating they were older.
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, family obligations, age or disability. The law does not explicitly prohibit discrimination for national origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identify, HIV or AIDS status or refugee status. 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. Penalties for violations were commensurate with laws related to civil rights.
According to NGOs, no policies were 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 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 the 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
Wage and Hour: 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.
The law establishes maximum hours of work, overtime, annual and sick leave, maternity leave, and guidelines for workplace safety. Civil servants are allowed six months of maternity leave and one month’s paternity leave. 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, and workers who are on call. Employee associations reported some government schools and hospitals placed a cap on overtime pay.
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 continued to be related to missing or problematic provisions included in employment contracts and job descriptions, overtime and other pay, and problems related to leave. Inspectors have the authority to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions. The LRA typically gave employers one to three months to correct problems but lacked sufficient labor inspectors and travel funding to enforce compliance. The government effectively enforced overtime laws. Penalties were commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud.
Occupational Safety and Health: The country does not have a general occupational health and safety law, but certain industries, including construction, health, aviation, and tourism, have compiled their own standards and regulations, which they enforce themselves. There were no reports the government took any action under health and safety regulations during the year. 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. There were multiple reports of workers at the central port in Male sustaining injuries at work, including two deaths of port employees who were struck by a carpet roll and a glass pallet while unloading cargo. In March parliament’s State-Owned Enterprises Committee launched an inquiry into health and safety standards at the port but had not published its findings by year’s end. The LRA continued to report difficulties in assessing safety standards during inspections due to the lack of national standards. Safety regulations for the construction industry require 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.
The government did not effectively enforce occupational safety and health laws, and penalties for violations were not commensurate with laws for other similar crimes.
Informal Sector: According to the government, 19 percent of the total working population is engaged in informal employment, with 62 percent self-employed and not subject to wage, hour, and occupational safety and health laws and inspections. The proportion of workers in the informal sector is higher in the islands outside Male, with 31 percent of the total working population outside Male engaged in the informal sector compared with 9 percent in Male. Informal employment is higher among women, with 25 percent of women compared to 16 percent of men. Manufacturing is the leading industry of informal employment with most women engaged in home-based work producing thatches and rope weaves, followed by the services (including domestic workers), agriculture and fisheries sectors. The LRA is authorized to inspect any workspace with employees but reported they did not routinely inspect workspaces of domestic workers. They did investigate complaints filed by domestic workers.
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. The LRA reported more than 40 percent of the complaints it received were submitted by foreign migrant workers.
Migrant workers were treated harshly, and the COVID-19 pandemic compounded this. Migrants experienced abuses from employers, including deceptive recruitment practices, wage theft, passport confiscation, unsafe living and working conditions, and excessive work demands, which indicate forced labor and violate domestic and international standards. The spread of COVID-19 and the lockdown to contain it exacerbated these conditions, as workers faced job loss, unpaid leave, reduced salaries, and forced work without pay.
NGOs expressed concern that senior government officials made statements characterizing the high number of undocumented workers present in the country as “a threat to national security,” indicating a lack of political will to address the exploitation of foreign migrant workers. 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 or in cramped labor quarters.
In 2020 the Maldivian Red Crescent reported their inspection of labor quarters in Male found each quarter housed approximately 200 workers, with six to seven individuals sharing rooms of 100 square feet. In some locations workers were forced to sleep in bathrooms or on balconies due to a lack of space. Most buildings also lacked adequate space for cooking and posed safety risks due to being structurally unsound. NGOs reported the government did not act to enforce regulations, which came into force in October 2020 setting standards for employer-provided accommodations for foreign migrant workers. Inspectors have the authority to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions. Some migrant workers were exposed to dangerous working conditions, especially in the construction industry, and worked in hazardous environments without proper ventilation. The Employment Act protects workers who remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment.