In the Maldives, coronavirus worsens plight of migrant workers

Migrant workers for the Bodufinolhu island development project sleep together on the floor
Migrant workers for the Bodufinolhu island development project sleep together on the floor

Stalled salary payments triggered a new wave of worker protests in the Maldives, most recently on Vaavu Atoll on July 21. There, 22 people were arrested. Many workers have not received a paycheck in seven months. The pandemic has increased delays and further exposed the dangerous working conditions for migrants.

The majority of expatriate workers in the Maldives are unskilled manual labourers in the construction and tourism industries. Most are from India, Bangladesh and Nepal. These labourers are particularly susceptible to exploitation, and many are victims of human trafficking. Often, they live and work in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, which are exacerbated by the pandemic. Currently, 1,472 Bangladeshi workers have tested positive for Covid-19, which is nearly half of the total 3,369 cases in the Maldives.

Fathimath Saaira has visited many of the worksites on behalf of Navaanavai, an NGO and left-wing political movement in the Maldives. One of their areas of focus is workers’ rights.


Exploitation of migrant workers is not new, but the increase in protests is a sign of the conditions...The Covid-19 pandemic exposed these issues.

In the video below, migrant workers in Hulhumalé describe the conditions where they live and work.

Video shows the poor sanitation and living conditions for migrants at the Hulhumale site


They are often forced to eat, live, and sleep under inhuman conditions which can be most likened to labour camps. 

Once one floor of the building is completed, they let [the migrants] live there with no proper shelter. They have to wake up at 5am to work. In many cases, workers are given the same breakfast and lunch everyday lentils, rice, roti bread using cheap and quite often unhealthy ingredients. 

They have to cook and do everything in that small area with half a partition. There's no clean air. They have to take a shower in an open area. People have no soap, nothing on them. They’re really desperate.

This second video shows migrant workers describing their living situation from within one of the temporary structures.

Migrant workers at Hulhumale talk about their working and living conditions.

When contacted by the Observers, a spokesperson for one company, Island Expert Pvt denied accusations of mistreatment. Island Expert Pvt is a Thai firm that is a major contracting company for construction in the Maldives. The government is one of its biggest clients.

“Claims such as malnourishment, sub-standard living conditions and health/medical disregard are all false and have been refuted via the Labour Relations Authority and the Human Rights Commission of Maldives upon their inspection and investigation.”

Lack of pay sparks protests 

The situation reached a breaking point in July. Many construction companies have not paid workers since before the pandemic. 

“Our staff's salaries were delayed from the beginning of the year, amounting between 3-4 months of delayed payments due to substantial unreceived payments from clients such as Ensis Fisheries Pvt Ltd,” said Island Expert Pvt in a statement to the Observers.

The 600 workers hired by Island Expert Pvt to build apartments in Hulhumalé have not received salaries since December 19. The apartments in Hulhumalé will house staff members of the Maldives Police Service (MPS) and Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF). 

The company promised to pay the salaries owed for the past seven months by July 12, but each worker only received the equivalent of 89€. Workers told local journal Sun Media that individuals should earn at least 290€ per month. With 600 workers on the site, at least 180,000€ has not been paid. 

Tired of waiting, workers protested in the suburb of Hulhumalé on July 14. After clashes with police, 41 were arrested. Since many do not have identity documents, prosecution is delayed.

In this Facebook live video recorded by Afsah Damps, a local resident, protesters wearing masks and yellow Island Expert work vests march down the streets. Tensions rise when police try to block them. 

Video of protest against Island Expert Pvt from Afsah Damps, a divemaster and amateur photographer.

“We’re famous for being a paradise but this is the reality.”

The protest against Island Expert is the sixth recent protest by migrant workers. 

Another began on July 3 because 200 migrant workers are stranded on Bodufinolhu Island. The island is being developed as a tourist resort, but workers on the project have not received pay in over six months. The company, RIX, is owned by Ali Riza, a member of the Maldivian Democratic Party in Parliament. When workers asked for salaries, they received death threats, according to Fathimath Saaira. Finally, workers protested and held four local supervisors against their will, preventing them from leaving the island. 

This act was subsequently reported as a kidnapping by local media and state institutions.

19 people were arrested and charged with terrorism, vandalism, and aggravated assault. The arrested protestors in the Bodufinolhu case were not given a translator. The rest of the workers are still on the island. 

We’re famous for being a paradise but this is the reality.


Image from inside the Bodufinolhu construction site

Mariyam Shunana is the president of the Public Interest Law Center. PILC is representing 198 workers who have not received wages.

This is the biggest class-action lawsuit filed at the Employment Tribunal ever. There are a lot of human rights violations: making them work & not paying them for six months, not allowing them to leave back to their country. It’s like modern day slavery.

Government rhetoric opposes migration

Migrant workers make up nearly 25 percent of the total population. But the high immigrant population has been the target of recent government anger.

On July 14, the Home Affairs Ministry declared that protests, marches, and other street assemblies would only be permitted with the express written approval of the Maldives Police Service excluding one special area in the capital city, Malé. As most of the protests by migrant workers occur on their work sites, none have been authorized. 

At a press conference on July 21, the Maldives Chief of Defence Force Major General Abdulla Shamal even suggested migrants pose a risk to national security.

"They have penetrated through our society and invaded us. This includes them marrying our Maldivians and everything else. They are very actively involved in committing crimes and the other day we saw them attack police. This is why it is a national security threat," he said.

Human Rights Watch condemned the Maldives government’s restrictions on protests and xenophobic discourse. The NGO also called for the release of detained protests and dropping charges.

The government's position concerns local activists, Fathimath Saaira says: 

It is unclear why the State believes that having to pay workers their unpaid wages poses a threat to national security.

We’re really worried about the xenophobia spreading across the nation.

Article by Sophie Stuber (@sophiestube)