This week saw the culmination of the Maldives’s first democratic elections. In a historic victory, Mohamed ‘Anni’ Nasheed, a former political prisoner and Amnesty ‘prisoner of conscience’, ousted dictator Maumun Abdul Gayoom in the presidential run-off.
Nasheed inherits a complex set of problems. Gayoom, who ruled for 30 years, has revolutionised the tiny nation’s economy based on luxury tourism. The last 20 years have seen a steady rise of 7 per cent per annum in gross domestic product. According to the Asian Development Bank, this makes the Maldives the richest nation in South Asia.
For many Westerners, the Maldives represents the peak of aspirational tourism, the 1190 tiny islands offering a level of privacy which even seven star hotels in Dubai cannot match.
Lurking behind this paradisiacal façade, though, is a gritty reality of exploitation and poverty. While a hotel room can cost up to £8,700 per night, 40 per cent of the population live on less than $1 per day, amidst rapidly rising living costs triggered by the global crisis. Certain areas lack electricity and running water.
“It is not paradise for anybody,” says Tricia Barnett, director of Tourism Concern. “Living conditions for most Maldivians are akin to those in sub-Saharan Africa. There has been no trickle down of the extraordinary amount of money being generated.”
The statistics do jar. A number of tiny, uninhabited islands are auctioned every year, fetching around £30m each. A survey conducted by the Tourism Employees Association of the Maldives (TEAM) showed that basic workers’ pay was between $80–$120 per month, although even the very lowest end resorts had an annual income of $3-4million. Fishing stocks are hugely depleted and fresh fruit and vegetables bypass local residents, going directly to tourist islands. The UN recently found that over 30 per cent of Maldivian children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition.
Barnett notes the lack of international awareness. “Gayoom’s regime was so repressive that it is very hard to get information out. Our campaign has been repeatedly undermined as people we were liaising with disappeared or were imprisoned. Compare this with the frequency of articles promoting the Maldives: they invest a huge amount in promotion.”
Until recently, visitors to high-end resorts, largely situated on uninhabited islands, were banned from visiting the capital city, Malé. This is hardly surprising, as it is the world’s most congested city, and home to a growing drugs epidemic. UNICEF estimate that 10 per cent of the population use drugs, nearly half of these using heroin. The average age of first time users is just 12.
Many young people either lack the skills to work, or are unwilling to do so in shockingly poor conditions: a 2005 report found that 22 per cent of men and 41 per cent of women aged 15 – 24 were unemployed. Subsequently, an immigrant workforce of 40,000 imported from Sri Lanka and Bangladesh provides cheap labour.
TEAM, formed as an association to bypass anti-trade union laws, represents the rights of all tourism employees. Earlier this year, tourism workers were omitted from legislation designed to protect workers’ rights, despite the fact that tourism is the primary industry. After a protracted fight, the Labour Act was amended this month. The bill promises a maximum working week of 48 hours, paid overtime, and extra pay during Ramadan.
However, according to Ahmed Easa, president of TEAM, the law is being ignored. “We expected the resorts to give us all the rights and benefits as soon as the changes were approved, but we are getting nothing. These are international hotel companies and big chains, ignoring the new laws.”
Reform of the tourism industry will be an uphill struggle, as many politicians have close ties to it. “Conflict of interest laws passed earlier this year required cabinet ministers with business interests to resign,” explains Rachel Noble, Campaigns Manager at Tourism Concern, “But they kept their parliamentary seats, so they can still pull strings behind the scenes, compromising any positive legislation for tourism workers.”
Many Maldivians are jubilant at the end of an era characterised by repressive control of dissent. Nasheed, jailed repeatedly for pro-democracy activity and granted political asylum to the UK in 2004, promises to root out corruption when he takes over on the 11 November. The tone amongst campaigners is one of cautious optimism.
“I have met with him several times, and he keeps saying that labour rights are one of his main concerns,” says Easa. “I am hoping, but everyone in the Maldives knows that it’s not going to be easy. The influence of the rich on politics is very strong, and government ministers directly or indirectly own resorts. Even if Anni supports us, it is a long road.
“In the last year, the political parties have been mainly concerned with changing government. They have forgotten about labour rights and the workers, the people who are suffering. Let’s see what happens”.