Migrant workers: Nepali labour exodus targets Middle East
Many Nepalis who move to the region in search of work encounter widespread abuse and exploitation. Some even end up losing their lives.
WASHINGTON: Kumar Thapa, a 41-year-old migrant worker, returned to Nepal in 2018 after labouring for nine years in the Middle East. Working for a construction company in Saudi Arabia, he used to save enough to send the equivalent of about $98 to his family back home. The money was spent on his child’s education as well as on building a small house in their hometown in Sindhupalchowk district. All in all, Thapa’s family was able to afford a comfortable life with the income he earned in the Middle East. But his story is more of an exception than a rule. Many Nepalis who move to the region in search of work encounter widespread abuse and exploitation. Some even end up losing their lives. At least 7,467 migrant workers have died abroad since 2008, according to figures from the government’s Labor Migration Report, with 750 of those deaths reported between 2018 and 2019.
These figures exclude workers who migrate through unauthorized channels as well as labourers who work in India. Recruitment agencies often deploy intermediaries to find potential migrant workers. They regularly use deception or coercion to hire workers and promise them lucrative jobs. While host countries usually require employers to pay recruitment fees, they often pass on the costs to workers, who take out loans to pay back the costs. The workers then face a heavy debt burden amounting to thousands of euros even before they leave their country of origin.
From the time they land in their host country, they are subject to stringent restrictions on their movement and freedoms, as part of the “Kafala” — or sponsorship — system, which gives employers total control over migrant workers’ employment and immigration status. The system is in force in all Arab Gulf countries, except Iraq, as well as in Jordan and Lebanon.
Employers regularly seize workers’ passports, visas and phones, and sometimes also reduce or withhold their wages. While domestic workers are confined to their homes, labourers toiling at construction and industrial sites are relegated to tiny and overcrowded dorms. Gender-based discrimination is rampant with many female domestic workers experiencing abuse, including sexual violence. Despite the risks and potential for exploitation, Middle Eastern countries continue to attract hundreds of thousands of Nepali migrant labor every year. Last year alone, over 620,000 Nepali workers moved to the region.
That’s because these jobs often offer higher pay than jobs in Nepal.
Many workers then send remittances home, which now account for as much as 25% of the nation’s total economic output. Nepal is currently the fifth most remittance-dependent economy in the world. The remittances have lifted a significant number of households out of poverty. This influx of outside cash has been keeping the economy afloat for a long time now, despite the country suffering bouts of political instability over the past decade. The high reliance on remittances means that the government has been wary of taking measures that could hurt migration to these countries, and, in turn, the flow of cash into Nepal. Recruitment agencies also lobby the Nepali government to ensure their activities aren’t restricted. “The Foreign Employment Act states that the recruiters’ businesses are protected. Those companies don’t care whether workers’ rights are respected or not, or when workers are offered different, low-paying jobs than what was mentioned in their contracts,” Kul Prasad Karki, chairperson of Pravasi Nepali Coordination Committee (PNCC), an NGO working for the rights of migrant workers, told DW.
The issue of migrant worker abuses has been back in international focus as Qatar prepares to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup this month. Reports suggest that many of the thousands of workers who toiled under scorching conditions to build the infrastructure needed for the tournament — including stadiums, roads and hotels — have suffered from heat-related deaths and injuries.