Nepali Times
Let them eat burgers


Suraj Man Sunuwar paid Rs 82,000 to a recruiter in Kathmandu for a job in Malaysia. "You are going to work in an American restaurant with an American salary," is what the agent told him.

When he got to Kuala Lumpur in October, the 26-year-old from Taplejung found that his salary at a McDonalds franchise was almost three times less than the RM 1,700 (Rs 35,000) a month that the recruiter had promised. The Nepali recruiter and his Malaysian partner pocketed the rest of the money.

Sunuwar (pictured) has a basic room and gets burgers and fries for meals. "I still spend RM 200 a month on food-I can't eat burgers every day," he says.

Nepalis have a good reputation in Malaysia, mainly because of the British Gurkha soldiers who fought the Japanese during World War II and helped quell a Communist rebellion here in the 1960s.

Many families stayed behind after the war and the Nepali settlements here still celebrate Nepali festivals, but third-generation children are assimilating into Malaysian society.

Despite being cheated on his pay, Sunuwar and workers like him are relatively better off than others who have no jobs when they arrive or are given difficult jobs in oil palm plantations. And although kitchen staff like Sunuwar earn a lot less than Malaysians doing the same jobs despite having a legal work permit, Nepalis without proper papers are exploited more severely.

What partially makes up for all this is that Nepali immigrant workers in Malaysia are respected for their integrity and hard work. A second-generation Indian Malaysian worker, while complaining about discrimination against his own group, told us: "Nepalis are the most honest and disciplined workers in Malaysia."

Mayalsia remains the destination most Nepali migrant workers head for, followed by Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Nepal's Department of Labour says 41,614 Nepalis have left for Malaysia in the past 10 months, compared with 74,019 last year. The number of Nepalis headed for Qatar last year was 62,705.

The place where Nepalis congregate in Kuala Lumpur is the Kotaraya neighbourhood where every other signboard is in Nepali for restaurants, phone call centres, money transfers and even curio shops and businesses. A stroll through Kotaraya is like walking in New Baneswor. Kiosks sell Nepali magazines and newspapers, and it is clear some Nepalis are doing extremely well.

For somebody like Sunuwar, to find a job in Malaysia and to earn and save enough to send money home is quite an achievement. If there was better regulation and safeguards were in place to prevent exploitation, he could send back even more.

The advent of a republic back home was celebrated by the Nepali immigrant community here. The labour union GEFONT has a chapter in KL to organise Nepali immigrant workers protect their interests and rights. The current Nepali ambassador is a Maoist political appointee, and there are always groups of Nepali workers at the embassy with job problems.

But only the most severely cheated go to the embassy to file a complaint. People like Sunuwar have to take their recruiters' conditions as a given. They know their employers are in a strong position and they don't want to risk being deported. A Nepali worker who took part in a protest rally here last year was sent back to Nepal by the authorities.

There are around 100 Nepalis working at McDonalds outlets in the Kuala Lumpur area, mostly spread out in four to five clusters across Damansara, Ampang Park, KLCC and Petaling Jaya. Sunuwar and his friends hope the new government in Nepal will tighten controls over recruiters so future migrant workers aren't cheated.

"Until that happens, the money you save is just not worth leaving home for," he says with a hint of regret.
With additional reporting by Satish Jung Shah.

The complete radio story on Nepali migrant workers in Malaysia is available at:

Gyanendra Farewell Statement

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)