8-14 January 2016 #790

Staying alive

The least that Nepal’s rulers must do is to ensure our workers abroad don’t have to die saving the country from economic collapse.


One reason Nepal has not gone completely belly-up despite the earthquake last year and this ongoing blockade is that the money wired home by Nepali migrant workers is keeping the economy afloat. The latest figures show that the country earned approximately $6 billion in the past year from the 2 million or so overseas contract workers mainly in the Gulf and Malaysia. This did not include money sent back to families by another 2 million or so seasonal migrants in India.

For generations, Nepal has been a net exporter of human capital. Forced to migrate due to hardships such as exploitation, indebtedness, falling agricultural productivity, and lack of jobs at home, Nepalis have traditionally sought greener pastures abroad. Migration has been a safety valve that has let rulers in Kathmandu off the hook for their spectacular and unparalleled failure over the years in offering gainful employment at home for its citizens.

Such is the desperation that drives Nepalis to migrate, that the exodus has historically been seen as a given. The despair also partly explains the lack of outrage in Nepal about the export of our young men and women. The recruitment of the citizens of one country to fight and die for another is incongruous in this day and age, yet hiring mercenaries hardly raises an eyebrow in Nepal.

The most alarming aspect about the trafficking of young Nepali women to brothels in India is not just the absence of any political will to stop it, but that the very communities from which the girls are taken tolerate this sexual slavery. Today, traffickers have moved on to duping and cheating young Nepali women in working as household help, and in this paper we have provided regular coverage of the horrendous exploitation and abuse they suffer at the hands of Nepali middlemen and their employers, particularly in the Gulf.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, poverty alone is not the primary driving force behind migration. The push factors of this mass exodus are the structural exclusion of a large section of the population, entrenched social injustice, weak governance and the ingrained neglect and apathy towards the welfare of its citizens. The districts from where there is the most out-migration are not the poorest: many who live in abject poverty simply can’t afford to migrate, because they don’t have the cash savings to pay middlemen fees and travel costs.

The migration industry is controlled by an unscrupulous mafia that has been given carte blanche (with the collusion of the government machinery) to squeeze the last rupee out of the most vulnerable. Economists have pointed out that remittances should have been used productively to spur investment in infrastructure and manufacturing at home and to generate jobs, which would have bought us time to get our act together on the economy. Unfortunately, as things stand today, earnings sent home by workers abroad are used by families mostly for subsistence, to send children to school or to buy property. It is not ploughed into investment that would create a multiplier effect on the economy. The infusion of hard currency therefore simply helps offset our burgeoning imports — mainly of petroleum products. We buy diesel with the blood, sweat and tears of our workers.

For a country that is so dependent on overseas contract workers, the Nepali state seems to be capable neither of protecting its citizens abroad nor of maximising the benefits of remittances to the national economy. The disgraceful way we treat the 2,500 Nepalis leaving for work and returning to Kathmandu Airport every day is proof that the worst enemy of Nepali workers is the Nepali state. Instead of declaring them national heroes, they are relentlessly fleeced, cheated, extorted, harassed, and abused by officials, security personnel every step of the way.

Just as Nepalis died during the World Wars fighting for foreigners, today they are dying in foreign lands where they toil. As our special coverage in this issue points out, even as workers queue up at Kathmandu Airport every day to board their flights, three coffins arrive daily on those same planes. More than 1,000 Nepali workers died in the past year, most of them in Malaysia followed by the Gulf countries — the main cause identified has been unexpected death syndrome (SUDS). Since autopsies are rarely conducted and there has been close to zero investigation into this appalling phenomenon, public health experts haven’t been able to figure out why certified healthy young men are dying of heart attacks at such a shocking rate in the plantations of Malaysia and the construction sites in the Gulf.

Among the contributing factors are overwork, exploitation, and acute stress caused by deep anxiety about not being able to take care of families back home. Successive governments of Nepal have failed to look after the welfare of citizens and provide jobs for them at home -- the least that the current rulers must do is to ensure Nepali workers abroad don’t have to lay down their lives to save the country from economic collapse.

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