Thursday, June 7, 2007

Workers of All Atolls, Unite!

A wave of red and yellow flowed through the main road of Male', the capital city of a country at crossroads, lifting the spirits of thousands of people and bringing hope to a population that has been suffering for too long.

May 1, 2006, will go down in history as a day of hope. The first May Day ever marked in the history of Maldives ended with jubilation for thousands of people who gathered and marched on the streets. Part of the success of the rally can be attributed to the sheer number of people it attracted and due to the fact that it came to an end without violence or confrontations with the police.

Workers from Male' Port area started the march from their work area, clad in red t-shirts, carrying banners and waving the national flag. Simultaneously, members of Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and supporters, who were gathered at the southwestern harbour of Male', started the march waving yellow flags and banners. The two groups converged at the western end of Majeedhee Magu, the main road of Male', and marched eastwards. Initially, the two groups were separated by hundreds of people on motorbikes, joining the rally. Eventually, the two groups joined together, the national flag with its predominant red colour, intermingling with the yellow hues of MDP.

It was a perfect union, of people who aspires for change. MDP was celebrating May Day with a rally to lobby for better labour rights and improved working conditions in the Maldives. Both the workers from the port area and MDP members called for a minimum wage to be introduced, and for Maldives to join the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

The workers from the port area, who work long hours for a meager wage, need radical improvements in their working conditions. They want Friday to be off. Despite Friday being a holiday for most Maldivians, those workers have to toil in the port area on Fridays. They argue they too have families and need time free from work. They want a number of bureaucratic hurdles placed in front of them to be removed so that they could enjoy better work conditions. They complain about lack of basic facilities in the port area. Even drinking water and toilet facilities are not widely available according to them.

They say work safety is below expectations in their work environment. Mohamed Haneef, who works in the port area, told Minivan Daily that sometimes containers are carried over workers heads using forklifts. Such work habits have led to accidents in which containers fell on people and caused injuries, according to Haneef.

The area in which those workers work is commonly known as Customs Area, even though Maldives Ports Authority has control over the area. Some people refer to those workers as 'Customs Workers' but they are not employed by Maldives Customs. The nature of their work is intricately linked to clearing cargo that arrives at Male' Port. Some of them are lorry drivers, some load the cargo to the lorries, and unload them at warehouses in different locations of Male'. Before the formation of Maldives Ports Authority, it was the Customs which had control over the area for decades, and the name 'Customs Area' is still used by several people as a relic of those days.

Workers at Male' Port or Male' Commercial Harbour, as it is officially known, are very much dependent on one another. Customs officers, Ports Authority staff and staff from the 'security forces' are to be present when a container is opened and its cargo inspected. Port Security is to be alerted before cargo can pass through the gates of the port.Yet the soul of the Port may as well be the labourers, the lorry and pickup truck drivers, who work there for long hours. They keep the port in motion. As most government officials in the port area such as Customs officers work on shift duty, government offices in the area are able to continue work even after 8.00 pm without unnecessary pressure on workers.

However, the labourers have to work from morning to late night. They argue that the government offices such as Customs and Ports Authority are indirectly forcing the independent labourers to work long hours by having their own staff on duty even after 8.00 pm and having the port open to cargo clearance services. Similarly, a Customs officer, who works on shift duty and gets off-days during the week, may not show any reluctance to report to work on a Friday. On the other hand, the labourers do not get a break throughout the week and are forced to work even on Fridays.

The high living costs of Male', and the low wages they earn, force the workers to remain chained to this oppressive work environment. The lure of the currency is too good to miss. The tyranny of poverty has made them helpless. Nevertheless, the workers at the port area have been very vocal in demanding their rights. Minor protests have already brought some improvements to the work conditions, even before they burst into national limelight on Labour Day, sweeping into Male' as a wave of red.

The workers want a Labour Union to be formed to voice their complaints, anguish and fears. The government is known to block such initiatives through red tape. However, this time the government should better listen, because the workers vow to continue protests till they achieve what they demand.

Workers have been instrumental in bringing drastic political changes throughout the world. The mutiny on Potemkin in June 1905 was one of the crucial factors that led to the eventual fall of Tsar Nicholas II in Russia. The mutiny occurred when sailors went into action against pathetic working conditions. History also shows a significant rebellion of port workers when economic problems led to an uprising of sailors at the northern port of Kronstadt in Russia in March 1921. Since the workers were previously loyal to the government, the uprising gave Lenin the message that he had to change his economic policies.

Whether Maumoon Abdul Gayoom will learn any lessons from the May Day march and bring any improvements to the work conditions of thousands of people in the Maldives is uncertain. His government has failed to enforce any concrete legislation to safeguard the labour rights. The call to formulate a Labour Law was echoed during the May Day rally.

A large percentage of Maldivian workers are employed by the government. There is no independent Civil Service, and political decisions cast ominous shadows over their work environment. A number of government employees face the prospect of losing their jobs unless they join the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), the party formed by Gayoom and his cronies. Several people have already lost jobs by refusing to succumb to such intimidation while the weaker ones have joined DRP against their own beliefs, for the sake of winning bread
for their families.

Maldives is a country that enjoys one of the highest per capita incomes in the region. But the figures are misleading because of the wide gap between the rich and poor. The nation is in a sorry state, with 42% of the people living below poverty line. Tourism contributes to the high per capita income figures that are shown on paper and are proudly spoken about at international conferences and written in gloss official publications. However, a look at the work conditions in the tourism sector makes one take a step back in horror.

Years of centrally controlling the tourism industry, without letting tourism expand to outer islands, have made life difficult for thousands of workers in the tourism sector and their families. While most of the resorts are located near Male' or in atolls near Male', a number of workers are from far-flung islands and atolls. They spend most of the years at the resort, without being able to spend time with their families.

Meanwhile back in their islands, progress mostly creeps forward or takes a step back because there are few able workers on the island. The money sent back home by the resort workers offer some consolation but it does not bring the warm sense of togetherness or belonging that occurs when a family lives together. The intention of controlling power and riches within a reachable distance has bled the nation.

Resort workers complain about discrimination between them and expatriate workers, the horrible food they are fed, and about unsuitable accommodation.

These are issues that people consciously and subconsciously think about when they chant for political change. By bringing these issues to the forefront, MDP is winning more members, supporters and sympathisers. These are issues that MDP should talk about, if it wants to topple the regime and come to power. After all, it is the daily bread that is the main concern of the people.

The chant for Gayoom's resignation was quite naturally heard throughout the May Day rally. It was a deafening roar at times. It is the national anthem for the masses, a rock song for the youth, and a lullaby of consolation. As I flowed with the tide of the human wave, I saw large numbers of people gathered at street corners watching the rally. I searched their faces for signs of hostility. But most of the time I was rewarded with smiles. It seemed as if the whole nation was pulsing with the same urgent need. The success of May Day rally was not only due to the pathetic working conditions but also the urgent need we all feel, that we need to move forward with our country, after disposing the stagnant regime in power.

Whenever a person saw a friend within the rally, there was a handshake, and warm smiles. The feeling of being in the crowd is difficult to describe. The numbers boosted confidence, and added to the resolve. There were several generations gathered; all with the same need. The faces were a kaleidoscope of age; young people, elderly women, middle-aged men, couples holding hands.

Lines of security forces blocked the rally from marching towards Republican Square but we remained near the Bank of Maldives, only a few feet separating us and the riot police. Several people were bold enough to go straight to the riot police line and take their photos. The fear that Gayoom has built over nearly three decades is crumbling.

As the sun set over the lines of riot police sporting their truncheons and shields, and as the twilight of the dusk cast various shades over yellow and red flags, we sat there, with the lagoon of Male' and then a blue sea to our right. What was being said and what was being done were indeed creating ripples. We were there with a message of peace to the armed forces and riot police. Our numbers spoke a lot. The ripples will create waves soon.

The large number of people gathered on May Day indicates that MDP is on the right path. It illustrates that MDP is in tune with the aspirations of the people. It shows that rather than negotiations with a failed regime, it is time for people power.

As a beautiful crescent appeared in the sky above us, one woman remarked, "Look! Even the moon is smiling at us."

Note: This is an article I wrote in May 2006 before I became disillusioned with MDP. It was published in Minivan News on 8 May 2006. With the first organized strikes (taxi drivers and Maldivian Air Taxi cabin crew) in the Maldives, issues concerning workers' rights are coming back to public discussions.

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