The harsh treatment of foreign workers in the Maldives during the Covid-19 pandemic has left many migrants vulnerable to abuse, Human Rights Watch said today. The Maldives government should adopt urgent measures to protect migrant workers, including upholding the right to peaceful protest and ending longstanding labor rights violations.

Migrant workers in the Maldives face a range of entrenched 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 has exacerbated these conditions, as workers face job loss, unpaid leave, reduced salaries, and forced work without pay.

“The Covid-19 crisis has compounded perennial abuses and toppled whatever precarious existence migrant workers in the Maldives may have achieved,” said Shayna Bauchner, Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s failure to effectively regulate recruitment and employment practices puts already vulnerable migrants into abusive situations, then traps them there.”

Human Rights Watch in July interviewed by phone seven migrant workers and three lawyers representing detained workers, and spoke at length with a group of workers involved in the protests. Their accounts revealed that the Maldives government, as well as some international and domestic companies, are failing to protect workers from serious abuses, including trafficking, forced labor, sub-minimum wages, involuntary and unpaid overtime, wage theft, and squalid living quarters.

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