Tourism Employees Threaten Strike On 5 October

Wednesday, 24 September 2008 00:38

Up to 20,000 tourist resort staff will strike just three days before the country's first ever multi-party elections if they do not receive new legal rights, the Tourism Employees Association Maldives (TEAM) told Minivan News on Friday.

"We will strike on 5 October. For a long time we have been trying to resolve this amicably, but we haven't seen any progress," said TEAM spokesperson Mohamed Mihad.

The workers in the country's largest and most lucrative industry are demanding rights accorded to other employees in the Employment Act, which came into force in July. These include maximum working hours, a minimum wage and regulations on dismissal.

Tourist resort employees were excluded from the Act, in a move information minister Mohamed Nasheed described at the time as a "mistake".

Industrial Action

"Everyone we have spoken to on the resorts is ready to strike. We believe the entire tourism industry is with us," Mihad told Minivan News.

Industrial action could spell chaos for visitors to the country, who come from all over the world, with the biggest markets the UK and Italy.

The unprecedented strike would also come just three days before the country's first ever multi-party presidential elections on 8 October.

TEAM president Ahmed Easa said the strike was planned for election time "so we know who is on our side and who is not, for when we vote."

TEAM, which was formed in July, has 10,000 registered members but says it estimates 15,000 to 20,000 will strike, with the length of strike to be determined by the government's response.

The Maldives is especially renowned as a luxury honeymoon destination and for its world-class scuba diving.

20,000 employees work on resorts alone, with an unknown additional number employed on safari boats and as reps for travel companies.

"We know this will have big impact and that's why we have been trying to sort this out amicably," said Mihad. "But no one is prepared to take responsibility."

Rights

Tourism employees, along with those working at factories on uninhabited islands, were excluded from most new rights awarded to workers through the Employment Act in July.

When the issue emerged in May, ahead of the bill coming into effect, information minister Mohamed Nasheed said the exclusion was a "mistake". The intention was only to exclude the sectors from certain specific provisions, he said.

An amendement has been drafted to ensure resort and factory employees receive the rights, though with exemptions on provisions such as maximum working hours.

But the amendment remains at committee stage as parliament focuses on new laws and institutions for elections. TEAM is sceptical as to whether its members' rights will be a priority.

"Our parliament is dominated by businessmen, most of them resort owners," said Mihad. "...Even in the last four months there have been a lot of difficulties."

TEAM president Easa said, "I do not believe the political leaders of this country are concerned about citizens' rights. Otherwise in the past 4 to 5 months 50,000 employees [TEAM's estimate of tourism sector employment] would have gained their rights."

Timeline

Speaker of parliament Mohamed Shihab told Minivan News, "I cannot say whether this bill will pass before or after elections. The Majlis [parliament] will proceed according to regulations...it will be the MPs who decide."

The amendment will appear on the agenda as soon as the parliamentary committee completes its report, Shihab said.

This looks set to be in the early days of October, as the Majlis will hold a recess once it finishes pre-election work, and return on 1 October.

Committee chair Ibrahim "Mavota" Shareef said the report was currently being drafted.

"There is no situation for people to come out and fight for their rights," he told Minivan News. "Actually the Majlis is not thinking of taking away rights from anyone in the tourism industry."

Rights

Mihad says resort staff currently receive poor treatment, especially when it comes to hiring and firing.

"This is low season [for occupancy]...the season of dismissing staff. Resort owners do it as they see fit," he says. "Resort management conducts resorts according to their mood. There is no job guarantee and no fair distribution of service charges."

The Employment Act entitles workers in Maldives – whatever their citizenship – to a minimum wage, at a rate to be set by the minister of employment, though this has not yet been carried out.

It also limits working hours to 48 per week and entitles workers to annual leave, maternity leave and 15-minute prayer breaks.

It sets procedures for contesting unfair dismissal, and creates a tribunal to deal with disputes.

Provisions apply to both Maldivians and expatriate workers, who make up about half of those employed in the tourism industry.

"In some resorts the foreigners are with us, but we are mostly targeting locals," Mihad said.

TEAM plans to become a fully-fledged union now that trade unions are permitted under the country's new constitution, ratified on 7 August.

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