Chhatiya VDC's Ward Eight in Parbat has nobody to represent it at the Village Development Committee. The ward president and vice president both work abroad. In recent years Chhatiya, like most other parts of Nepal, has witnessed an exodus of able-bodied men.
"With my academic qualifications, I will never be able get a job that pays enough to sustain my family. Otherwise, who would think about going abroad," said Chhatra Bahadur Pun, vice president of Ward Eight, as he was waiting to board a plane for Malaysia. Pun has 12 years of formal education and he worked his family's field before being elected to the ward office.
Nepal earns a huge amount in the form of remittances from citizens working abroad, but there are also thousands of Nepalis cheated of their inheritance and land-holdings, lured by the prospect of employment overseas. An investigation by Himal Khabarpatrika last year estimated that remittances from abroad earn Nepal about Rs 75 billion annually-more than tourism, foreign aid and exports put together. However, there is no data available about how this is split up between the different kinds of workers or how much of it is taken as \'commission' by the agents. Most importantly, there is no data on the actual number of Nepali workers abroad. The labour department, under the Ministry of Labour and Transportation Management, is supposed to monitor the foreign employment sector, but officials could not even tell us how much an aspiring worker pays an employment agency for placement.
Given the widespread un- and underemployment here, it is not surprising that people want to go abroad. More youth are educated and on the lookout for white-collar jobs, but the job creation potential is negligible in this sector. There are around 300,000 new people on the job market every year, and only a scant 10 percent can be accommodated in the formal sector. Data for the Ninth Plan says that while unemployment is at five percent, underemployment stands at a whopping 47 percent. The Plan has other alarming details-unemployment is highest in the 15-25 age group.
The Nepal Labour Force Survey 1998/99 includes household work like fetching water and collecting firewood under the purview of \'work,' which brings the overall unemployment down to two percent. And yet even in this survey, unemployment is highest in the most productive 15-25 age-group.
Young people-especially young men-are being pushed to the edge. Despite publicised incidents of fraud and deception by agents, they are overwhelmingly using family property to try their luck. The ineptitude in the Department of Labour, inefficient implementation of laws concerning workers' rights, and double-dealing private manpower agents all maximise the risks. Unskilled workers who want to go to Persian Gulf countries and south-east Asian countries such as Malaysia suffer the most.
Sociologist Ganesh Gurung conducted a study last year which found that economically and educationally disadvantaged groups generally head to Persian Gulf countries for employment, followed by south-east Asian countries like Malaysia. Such workers' decision to seek employment in particular countries usually tends to depend on the socio-economic conditions of their families, their educational status, access to information, existing support networks and the country's proximity to Nepal. Those with more well-off backgrounds tend to head farther afield, to Japan, Korea and the West.
People seeking foreign employment can be cheated twice-within the country and when they reach their destination. The deception begins as soon as a person indicates his interest in foreign employment. The village moneylender is often the first to benefit, as employment agencies require applicants to pay the entire amount involved in seeking and securing a job in one go, before the process is started. Applicants want the money desperately, and moneylenders in the informal sector will give it to them-often at 60 percent per annum. And, since the supply of workers is contracted and sub-contracted in so many layers, from overseas agencies to Nepali agency to smaller agencies to individual brokers in the countryside, a worker could end up paying double the actual cost of the process. At every layer, the agencies add on a comfortable margin for themselves. Former labour secretary Damaru Ballav Bhattarai, who went on a study tour last year to the Persian Gulf, estimates that for a job which should cost Rs 50,000 to organise, a gullible, helpless and desperate worker ends up paying Rs 80,000-90,000.
This makes for many sad individual stories, but it is also damaging the social fabric of this country. Say a hill lad takes on a loan of Rs 80,000 at 60 percent interest from his village moneylender to pay an agent to secure a three-year job assignment in Malaysia. Even if he saves substantially through that period, he still loses. If one is to the believe newspaper advertisements, a literate Nepali worker without any previous experience or knowledge, can get a job in Malaysia that pays RM 475 (NRs 9,500) per month, of which RM 100 will be deducted in tax. If this worker lives on the barest minimum, eating noodle soup once a day and bunking with five other workers in one room, he will be able to save about Rs 5,000 a month. Which means he needs to works for 16 months to return the principal, Rs 80,000, by which time his debt, with the interest, will have climbed to Rs 144,000.
Although the government recognises that foreign employment is a strategy to address national poverty, the poor do not benefit from the few opportunities presented to Nepalis. A study conducted in Lahachok VDC in Kaski in 1999 by Jaganath Adhikari, a Pokhara-based researcher, found that the poorest 40 percent of the village could not possibly benefit from foreign employment because they could not raise Rs 60,000, the minimum cash it took to get a foreign job.
The other trap-the bigger one-for workers abroad is the difference between what the employment agencies promise and the actual work conditions they are faced with. Worried and depressed by the prospect of losing their investment and the loss of face, these youths often work in inhuman conditions, just to be able to return having at least broken even. Perhaps because of this, the death rate among the Nepali workers in the Gulf is shockingly high. The Bhattarai report says that in three years between 1997-2000, 400 hundred young Nepalis in these countries died in accidents or committed suicide. In January 2001 alone the bodies of 14 dead workers were flown to Kathmandu.
The government promises to make the foreign employment a secure option for the poor. In 1998, then prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala said he would appoint labour attach?s in countries with over 5,000 Nepali workers, to look after their interests. This never materialised. Promoting foreign employment opportunities is a major component of Nepal's economic diplomacy, but proposals like Koirala's have always come to naught. A proposed labour agreement with Qatar has been under discussion since 1998, but no substantial progressed has been made. The 1998/99 budget speech proposed that 200 Nepalis each from the 205 electoral constituencies would be employed overseas via a government agency. In October 1999, the government announced that it would establish a \'foreign employment bank' to provide credit to overseas job seekers. Neither of these promises has materialised.
After the governments in the Gulf allowed individuals to hire foreign workers two years ago, the demand in these countries for unskilled workers has risen sharply. Since Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, which used to be the main sources of cheap, foreign labour, do not send workers there anymore, Nepal has become the new resource. Nepali agents also want to make bigger profits, and supplying workers to meet this demand has become an attractive option. And they do not stop at anything. There have been a number of incidents in which unskilled Nepali workers are sent to the Gulf under demand letters for skilled or semi-skilled workers received through legitimate channels. Once there, these workers, unsure of their legal position and rights, cannot refuse the work that is asked of them. Damaru Ballave Bhattarai confirms this: "Smuggling of workers into the Gulf is going on unchecked, Nepalis are being lured into slavery."
Hari Bahadur Sunuwar, who cannot read English, said his agent promised that that his monthly salary would be RM 475 for work at a construction site in Malaysia, but the paper he was handed before he checked in for his flight at the Tribhuvan International Airport says clearly that he will be paid the Malaysian equivalent of $3 per day-about Rs 6,000 a month if he works for 26 days.
Sunuwar's case is not only a breach of the understanding between him and his employment agency, but also violates the 1985 Foreign Employment Act (FEA) that prohibits workers from going-or being sent-abroad for under $125 per month. The FEA is violated at every stage in such employment processes.
Fraud in foreign employment flourished in the 15 years between 1985 and 1999, because the FEA was not supported by a strong regulation. Before the Foreign Employment Regulation was enacted in 1999, the Act operated on the basis of policy direction, notifications and oral orders from the Department of Labour, all of which created confusion and ambiguities. The Regulation has strict provisions that allow the government to conduct investigations into and even disqualify agencies that violate the law, the problem is still in the implementation side.
Binod Kumar Bhattarai, member-secretary of the Employment Promotion Commission, says he knows why this happens. "The political patronage given to culprits and the involvement of labour officials hampers the implementation most," he says. In Nepal, employment is a political issue. MPs time and again confess openly that they are under great pressure to provide employment to their constituents. So, as the foreign employment sector has grown, many of these \'representatives of the people' got involved in the business themselves or bought favours during the elections. In the still-confused bureaucracy of the agencies meant to guard the interests of workers abroad-the Ministry of Labour and Transport Management and the Department of Labour-the conflict of interest is open. The present labour minister, Palten Gurung, has a brother, Tek Bahadur Gurung, who runs an employment agency called Himalayan Manpower Agency. The under-secretary for labour, Dev Ratna Tamrakar, is himself one of the main accused in a fraud scandal involving Samjhana Overseas Services last year, where 228 people say they were cheated.