Nepali Times
Working to death


COMING HOME IN A COFFIN: Boys at Pashupati paddle in the coffin of a dead Nepali worker as they look for valuables that have fallen into the Bagmati at the cremation site.
Fatalities among Nepali migrant workers reached a peak in the second half of 2008 and the government is scrambling to set up a scheme to compensate relatives and help pay to bring the bodies home.

Laxman Kharel was working at an electrical company in Dubai. He had been there just seven months when he had a stroke and died at age 26. The company entrusted a colleague to take the body to Nepal.

Laxman's sister-in-law Mina Prasai had talked to Laxman just two days before. "He told me that he would be in Nepal next Dasain," she recalls. His wife Pushpa broke her right hand as she collapsed when she heard the news.

Since the roads had been destroyed by the Kosi flood in August the fare for the journey from Kathmandu to Taplejung had risen from Rs 2,000 to Rs 7,000. It did not seem practical to take the body to his village for the funeral, so the body was cremated at Pashupati.

As the number of Nepal's migrant workers exceeds 15 per cent of the population, the number of fatalities have also increased. Records from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs show that 158 migrant workers died in 2006/07, but in 2007/08 the death toll had climbed to 237. The number peaked at a record 154 deaths between April and December this year.

Most occurred in the Gulf countries with 80 per cent in Saudi Arabia followed by Qatar. The ministry's statistics do not include fatalities among the estimated 2 million Nepalis workers in India.

Interestingly, none of the death certificates mention the cause of death. Where it is noted, a substantial number are given as 'cardiac arrest', and officials say there are a surprising number of Nepalis who have reportedly died in their sleep.

Krishna Dawadi, joint secretary at the Department of Labour and Foreign Employment Promotion says Nepali workers are mainly unskilled, often employed in risky jobs and are vulnerable to fatal accidents.

Transporting the body home is a lengthy and complex process. The incident is first reported to the Nepali embassy. If the worker has a legal work permit, the mission then verifies the information with the Department of Labour and then corresponds with the foreign ministry in Nepal.

The ministry contacts the local agency and the next of kin is informed. The local agency then writes to the ministry establishing the claimant's relationship with the deceased. The relative needs to take all the relevant documents and apply formally at the foreign ministry for the body to be brought home.

If the worker has no government labour permission to work abroad, it is the employer who corresponds with the dead person's family.

The Foreign Employment Act 1985 had provision for a labour attach? in the countries where 5,000 or more Nepalis work. But Nepal has signed bilateral labour agreements only with Korea, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE - although it has embassies in 18 countries. It is the employer who fixes the pay and perks of workers in the remaining countries. If there were bilateral labour agreements, Nepali labourers would be paid according to the law of the country.

A Foreign Employment Promotion Board was set up this month to have compulsory insurance that will compensate families with Rs 100,000 in case of death as well as providing medical treatment abroad for the injured. The board has already started receiving applications for compensation from the relatives even before it has actually started its work.
"We have a fund of Rs 450 million and will begin the compensation process soon," says Thaneswor Debkota, member secretary of the board.

He believes this provision will also encourage Nepali migrant workers to go through the correct legal channels before leaving to work abroad. Half of the estimated 2.4 million Nepali working in countries other than India do not have work permits.

Debkota told Nepali Times: "If we halve the number of illegal workers, the risk will go down significantly and it can also help in increasing remittances."

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)