Pictures: Milan Poudel
On the fourteenth story of a new high rise apartment rising up on the outskirts of Kathmandu, an Indian construction worker sits right at the edge, using pieces of wire to tie steel rods into bundles for reinforced concrete beams.
At that dizzying height, he works unprotected without a helmet and ropes, and has no time to enjoy the view of the valley spread out below him. The building is on the flight path into Kathmandu airport, and an Airbus 330 carrying Nepali workers to and from Malaysia roars by overhead. Because most young Nepalis have migrated to Malaysia or the Gulf, the workers here are from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, and some from the Tarai.
“Why worry about ropes and helmets if the pay is so low,” says the worker, not bothering to look up when asked why he is not using a harness.
Other workers are perched precariously on flimsy bamboo scaffolding high up on Mero City, a new apartment complex coming up in Dhapakhel. The apartments here will sell for up to Rs 40 million when complete. The 130 construction workers here earn Rs 800 for a 14-hour working day. They live in the lower flats of the building they are working on, and save on rent. Many of the workers from the Tarai say they haven’t gone abroad either because they couldn’t afford hefty fees demanded by labour recruiters, or are not familiar with the procedures to get a passport. A Nepali worker from Bardia says he is taking a few days of unpaid leave to go home for rice-planting.
The outcry over bonded workers in the Gulf in the international media masks the exploitation of Nepali workers within Nepal. Kathmandu’s construction boom depends on cheap domestic migrant labour, and until laws are enforced to protect the rights of workers, they will continue to be vulnerable.
The truth is, Nepali construction workers don’t have to go to Qatar or the UAE to be ill-treated, they get that right in here in their homeland.
As we gathered our equipment, thanked the workers for their time and started to take the long staircase down, a construction supervisor came up and rudely asked us what we were doing at the site. After finding out we were photographing and interviewing the workers, he issued threats and warned us not to come back.