Nepali migrant workers in the Gulf are suddenly in the news again for all the wrong reasons. The exploitation, harassment, and appalling working conditions of Nepali labourers abroad is nothing new to people back home. The government knows it, the bureaucracy is fully aware, the Foreign Ministry and our missions in the Gulf know the extent of the problem, the Nepali media has investigated the chronic abuse and mistreatment of our workers.
Yet it took an investigative report in The Guardian linking the fatally dangerous slave-like working conditions of Nepali workers engaged in the construction of the 2022 World Cup to bring it to the world’s attention last week.
For Nepalis who have become inured to the suffering of fellow citizens with stories every day of recruiters duping workers, of young women sexually abused and beaten by employers, The Guardian report was nothing new. Nepalis have become numb reading about our own people being forced to endure such extreme hardship, suffering, and death.
This is not a novel narrative. Nepalis have been migrating to Assam, Burma, and northern India for centuries, fleeing indebtedness, discrimination, and lack of prospects back home. Just as the outrageous lack of outrage over the trafficking of Nepali girls to brothels in India perpetuated the practice, so has the inertia and apathy about an uncaring state and ruthless recruiting agencies over this widespread prevalence of modern-day slavery allowed it to continue and grow.
So far both governments are in denial and have refuted allegations of bonded labour. The Nepal government doesn’t want to jeopardise lucrative remittances from the estimated 500,000 Nepalis in Qatar and the Qataris themselves have been on damage control mode to salvage their World Cup.
Both hope that, with time, the fuss will blow over. We don’t expect our own government to do much, but the international media attention on the mistreatment of Nepali workers could spur Gulf states to put safeguards and labour protection laws in place. However, it goes without saying that the ultimate responsibility to take care of our citizens is on us, especially since much of the worst cruelty and abuse Nepalis suffer is perpetrated by Nepali officials and the middlemen who bribe them to look the other way.
Of the many examples of governance failure we see around us, perhaps the most striking is the way we have mismanaged our two most important resources: manpower and hydropower. We are headed to another winter with daily 14 hour power cuts and the most shocking thing is that it is happening despite everyone in government being fully aware for the past 10 years as the power crisis got worse.
A new constitution, general and local elections to vote in more accountable governments would be the answers to these woes. But the candidate lists of the parties that were announced this week show that the November election is already rigged so that none of the top leaders of the four main parties will lose. We can be sure it will be the same failed faces that will dominate the new Constituent Assembly and you can almost predict that they will get stuck on the same issues as last time.
As long as the politics is fluid, there will be no investment. No new investment means no new jobs. No jobs means continued outmigration. One short term measure is to urgently begin vocational schools to teach graduates basic skills and trades. That way, they can be self-employed or employ others at home, or if they do go abroad, they can earn more.
We boast that the $4 billion in remittances from the estimated three million Nepalis working in India and overseas props up our economy. But most of that is spent on imports or on basic survival. An investigation in this paper two weeks ago showed widespread malfeasance and extortion of overseas workers with airport officials collecting and distributing among themselves an estimated Rs 2 million in bribes from the 2,200 Nepalis flying out or in every day. The statistics break down into heart-wrenching stories of abuse and deceit, with an average of four Nepalis every day returning home in coffins.
There are steps the government can take right away without waiting for elections or a new constitution: reduce the cost of migration for workers by cracking down on bribery and exploitation by recruiters and immigration, prepare them for higher earnings by skills-based training before they go, and reduce the rate of official remittance transfer.
This will buy us time (and money) until we fix our politics and ensure that there is enough work on home soil for Nepalis so they don’t have to die in some godforsaken desert.
Watch The Guardian video
The dark side of international migration
Too little, too late?
No dignity in death
Working to death