We know the feeling when we see a football match that’s rigged. Our team is playing with skill, talent and team work, following the rules and scoring brilliant goals. But the referee is handing out yellow and red cards to our team, and letting the other team cheat, foul and bluff their way to victory. Final whistle and we are left angry, frustrated and beaten. That’s how our members in TEAM felt this week when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Crown Company. In violation of the internationally recognized to freedom of association, the ruling upholds the right of Crown Resorts to terminate 22 workers for joining a union and speaking out about abusive working conditions and safety 10 years ago. For Crown Company the investment in the legal battle to silence workers on its resorts has paid off. But the cost for the Maldives is high, especially when the safe recovery of tourism needs the robust, confident voices of workers, not their fearful silence.

In the fragile recovery of tourism during an ongoing pandemic, international travellers fortunate enough to reach the Maldives expect to stay at safe hotels and resorts. Their safety depends not on protocols and policies but the experienced, skilled and committed staff who are able to keep them safe. The capacity of hotel and resort workers to do this depends on their own safety and security and their ability to speak out about safety concerns. This is underpinned by good industrial relations. Because the only way to speak out is collectively, without fear of reprisal. In other words, an unethical workplace where workers are treated badly and silenced through threats and intimidation easily translates into unsafe workplace and an unsafe resort.

These are the conditions Crown Company has created over the past 10 years. By diversifying into finance and private hospitals and cutting costs in its resorts, Crown Company has undermined the safety of workers and guests. The company has a record of unethical actions later justified as necessary for economic reasons.

In 2009 over 350 workers protested abusive working conditions at the Hilton Conrad Rangali Islands Resort, which was owned and managed by Crown Company. In response the company terminated 29 union members and leaders. After 22 union members challenged their unfair dismissal in the Employment Tribunal, the Tribunal ruled that the mass firings were unfair, and ordered management to reinstate the workers within 10 days with full back pay.

Instead of correcting this and following the sound judgement of the Employment Tribunal, Crown Company aggressively pursued the termination of union members. Appealing to the High Court, Crown Company, invested heavily in the legal fight to overturn the Employment Tribunal decision. This legal battle then continued over the next 10 years to the Supreme Court.

This investment in a legal battle to prevent reinstatement of the 22 unfairly dismissed union members was a significant political investment for Crown Company. Not only did it keep the Hilton Conrad resort free of a union – silencing workers who raised concerns about abusive working conditions. It also created a climate a fear in Crown’s other resorts including those operated jointly under Crown & Champa Resorts (CCR).

The message was clear: if you exercise your right to join a union and speak out about health and safety, an abusive management, and poverty wages, then you will be terminated, forcefully removed from the island and never be permitted to return. In a travesty of justice that casts doubt on the independence and integrity of the judicial system, the Supreme Court upheld Crown Company’s message on February 3, 2021.

Dismissed union members protesting off the coast of the island resort owned by Crown Company in October 2012.

This sets a very damaging precedent for the Maldives at a time when the government is making tremendous efforts in the recovery of tourism.

For this tourism recovery to be sustainable, the government must look beyond reopening to flights and maintaining COVID-19 testing and safety protocols. Rogue companies like Crown Company must be held accountable for its unethical behaviour. Workers at resorts fully or partly owned by Crown Company must be guaranteed the right to decent working conditions.

More importantly, workers must be guaranteed the right to speak out against substandard conditions, poor health and safety and other violations. If they continue to be silent, fearing dismissal – as the Supreme Court ruling seems to suggest they should – then no one can guarantee the safety of these resorts. The credibility and reputation of the whole Maldives tourism industry is at then put at risk.

And that’s the real cost of rigged matches.