Nepali Times
Why can’t "manpower" agencies find jobs for women?


Ever since the tragic death five years ago of Kani Sherpa, who committed suicide after being sexually abused by her employer in Qatar, Nepali women have been banned from going to the Gulf countries for employment.

But an unlikely alliance of women's rights activists and "manpower" agencies have been trying to get that ban lifted. Last week, finally, the Social Justice Committee of the Upper House agreed that restricting women from employment abroad was a violation of their basic rights.

"Stopping women from finding jobs abroad is a serious violation of freedom of mobility, livelihood and self-determination rights," says Ambika Pant-Chapagain who chairs the committee.

However, the ban stays in place because of a cabinet decision taken five years ago that restricts women from seeking jobs abroad. Ironically, the anti-trafficking activist, Anuradha Koirala of Maiti Nepal who lobbied for that ban is now the Assistant Minister of Women and Social Welfare. Her ministry's stance has reportedly not changed, and officials at the Labour Department said there was no move to lift the ban.

"Our view is that there aren't enough safeguards to prevent women from abuse and exploitation when they go to the Gulf countries to work as domestics," the director general of the Department of Labour, Lalit Bahadur Thapa, told us. Nepali women are, however, not banned from going to Hong Kong and other east Asian countries.

But labour activists say the law is arbitrary and implemented haphazardly at Kathmandu airport. Women travelling alone are unnecessarily harassed even if they are not going to the Gulf, and others going to the Gulf to work, for example, as stewardesses are allowed, but domestics are not.

Activists say that the government has taken the easy way out by slapping a ban, rather than amending shortcomings in its labour migration policy. However, fewer and fewer people seem convinced that the ban serves any purpose anymore. In fact, there is a growing consensus that the provision affects not only employment opportunities for women, but has also stigmatised them unnecessarily. We found that even those women who had returned from legal employment abroad hesitate to admit it openly.

"This ban has denied Nepali women from lots of opportunities for work in the Gulf countries," says a Nepali woman who is just back working as a nurse in Bahrain. "It also means they can't get pre-departure training and orientation, and they have to lie and cheat to get out." Because they have to do so clandestinely, Nepali women workers in the Gulf have no insurance, no training, there are no official records of how many they are, and this also makes them vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous middlemen and employers.

The official ban has not stopped the flow of Nepali women to the Gulf. Instead of flying directly out of Kathmandu airport, many travel overland to India from where they are sent by Indian middlemen to the Gulf. Others fly via Bangladesh where an active labour mafia controls the traffic of women to the Gulf. This means there are no reliable records and no one in government has even an approximate figure for the number of women currently in the Gulf. (See No one keeps count.)

The Far East Overseas Nepali Association (FEONA) says 95 percent of the legal cases it handles relates to lower wages, early termination from employment and physical and verbal abuse.

The ban on employment in Gulf has also curtailed opportunities for Nepali women in other countries due to lack of knowledge among those wishing to go abroad for work, or even in the bureaucracy.

A former labour minister is said to have cancelled a large contract for women workers in Israel because he thought Israel was a gulf country.

Besides, legal hassles in obtaining permission from families and government as required in the Labour Act means employment agencies are reluctant to send women workers even to countries where it is legal. "It takes four times more time and money to send women out. We prefer not to deal with women workers," says a labour agent in Kathmandu.

Dan Bahadur Tamang Nepal United Association of Foreign Employment Agencies (NUAFEA) estimates that of the 500 or so migrant workers who fly out every day from Kathmandu airport, 20 percent are women. This would mean that there could already be anywhere up to 100,000 Nepali women working in countries other than India. The figures for Nepali women in India is even more unreliable, but collating various estimates by NGOs gives us a figure of up to 300,000 Nepali women across the southern border at any given time.

Since female migrant workers are invisible, their contribution to the country's economy is also not recorded. Nepali researcher Ganesh Gurung claims that about 11 percent of the estimated total of Rs 74 billion Nepal received in remittance from its overseas workers this fiscal year were contributed by women workers.

NUAFEA president Bharat Singh Thapa believes the volume of remittance can be easily doubled if women are encouraged and assisted in finding meaningful work abroad. The experiences of other labour exporting Asian countries show that women are better savers, and are more regular in sending money home while male workers generally splurge. When they do spend, men tend to buy electronic consumer goods or other items from the airport duty free.

The women who do go abroad to work in Hong Kong acquired the jobs through contacts or their own effort. They depend on friends and relatives for information and social safety when in an alien country. Families benefiting from earnings of female relatives mostly belong to communities with a tradition of their men working abroad.
"It is about changing perspectives, women should be allowed to develop as a factor in the economy," says Sharu Joshi Shrestha of UNIFEM's Nepal office.

About 300,000 Nepali young adults enter the job market annually, but the Nepali job market is unable to absorb them. A third of the graduates are women, and if women are not allowed to go for foreign employment the official target of reducing unemployment to 12 percent from 17 percent in five years is simply not going to happen.
"It is the government's obligation to guarantee safety of its citizens. Preventing women from foreign employment is violating women's basic human rights to conceal its own weaknesses," says Binda Pandey of the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT). "Instead of a protective role the government is playing a prohibiting role by preventing women from going abroad."

The proposed amendment to the Labour Regulation can be the starting point. After that, the government needs to follow-up with effective training and pre-departure orientation, about social safety measures, workers' rights, labour standards and also equip Nepali embassies abroad to help when they get into trouble.

No one keeps count

The 2001 Census showed that 83,000 women were absent during the time that enumerators went from village to village, which was about 11 percent of the total absent population. If only half of them had gone abroad for employment, then there should be 42,000 Nepali women working.

Ask the Labour Department and officials only have records of 121 Nepali women working abroad. There are some 2,000 Nepali women are working as domestics in Hong Kong alone, but officially the number is only 700. One estimate is that of the 500 Nepalis who fly out daily from Kathmandu airport to countries other than India, 20 percent are women.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)