4-10 March 2016 #798

United Arab Emigrants

Nepali workers in the UAE move from construction to services
Om Astha Rai

Photo: Pattabi Raman

When Tom Cruise crawled up and slid down the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, for a death-defying stunt in the 2011 blockbuster Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, movie fans in Nepal watched enthralled.

But little did they know that their own countrymen were among the 700,000 migrant workers in this Gulf emirate who built and maintain this iconic tower in Dubai. Nepali migrant workers, together with others from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh have helped build not just the Burj Khalifa but much of the UAE since the early 1980s.

“Whether the Burj Khalifa or the Palm Island, almost every modern structure of Dubai was built by South and East Asian migrant workers, including Nepalis,” says Bal Bahadur Tamang, former President of the Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies (NAFEA).

But Dubai’s construction spree has slowed down in the last few years as oil prices continue to fall, and the demand for Nepali labourers in this most populous province of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) decreases. 

“Dubai no longer requires as many construction workers as it used to,” says Hira Kumari Yadav, Nepal’s Labour Attaché for the UAE. “Very few visas are issued these days for construction workers for Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Fujairah.” 

However, increasingly more Nepalis are now entering the service sector in the UAE, working as chauffeurs, transporters and security guards and also in hospitals, hotels, malls and supermarkets. 

“The pattern is certainly changing,” says Tamang, who has been sending Nepali migrant workers to the UAE for the last 15 years. “Arab employers now trust Nepalis in well-paid jobs which till a decade ago used to be dominated by people from Kerala and the Philippines.”

Tamang used to send mostly construction workers to the UAE until five years ago. Now the 1,500 Nepalis he sends there every year mainly work in the service sector.  

The UAE is the fourth largest destination for Nepali migrants, after Malaysia, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. More than 400,000 Nepalis have migrated to the UAE in the last 10 years alone, and currently about 225,000 Nepalis are estimated to be working there. They send home nearly Rs 70 billion every year. 

Lokendra Poudel, a 28-year-old scaffold fixer from Jhapa went to Abu Dhabi in 2008 after two years in Qatar. He returned home last week to be with his family for a three-month holiday. He says the UAE is relatively better than Qatar in terms of work safety. 

“The company where I work does not compromise on our safety,” he says. “And we get salaries on time.”  As in Malaysia and other Gulf countries, young and certified healthy workers die in their sleep in the UAE, too. Last year more than 60 Nepalis died in the UAE, mostly due to heart attacks and road accidents. With the international spotlight on working conditions, the UAE is reforming its laws and introducing new policies to reduce the risk of exploitation of migration workers.

In January, the UAE became the first country to prepare labour contract papers in languages other than Arabic, which the workers can read and understand. Says Labour Attaché Yadav: “They now know what they will have to do and how much they will be earning before leaving Nepal.”

Two years ago, the UAE made it mandatory for the employers to pay the workers through the bank, reducing the risk of exploitation of the poor migrants.  

Tumbling oil prices have hit the Gulf states, but the UAE is relatively unaffected because it has diversified its economy to trade, tourism and investments. After Malaysia temporarily banned the entry of migrant workers, labour recruiters are now even more focused on the Gulf, particularly the UAE.   But Tamang of the NAFEA is not confident that the UAE can be an alternative to the lost job market of Malaysia. “The UAE is a distinct destination for the safety and freedom that it offers to migrant workers,” he says. “But in terms of volume of workers, it cannot replace Malaysia.”  

Tamang says the government must now focus on sending skilled workers to the UAE so that even if the numbers decrease, their earnings will not be affected. ”At least 40 per cent of Nepalis in the UAE are already in decent and well-paid jobs,” says Tamang, “whether this will grow depends on how our government approaches the UAE.”

The UAE is preparing to set up its embassy in Kathmandu, which labour recruiters believe is long overdue so that Nepal can lobby to increase the UAE’s uptake of Nepali workers. 

Read also:

Work in progress, Jan Møller Hansen

Killed in the line of duty, Om Astha Rai

Our remit, Editorial

Unsafe workplaces, Om Astha Rai

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