18-24 July 2014 #716

Blood, sweat and tears

‘The vulnerability of Nepali migrant workers to exploitation abroad is heightened by routine misconduct within Nepal’
Damakant Jayshi
The exploitation of Nepali workers abroad has been called a form of ‘modern day slavery’, and exploded in the international media this year with one exposé after another over their mistreatment in Qatar.

The danger in such high profile international coverage is that it takes the spotlight off the exploitation of Nepali workers by Nepali recruiters and immigration officials, and tends to let them off the hook.

The Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility (CESLAM) of Social Science Baha has been studying the violation of the labour rights of Nepali migrant workers. Its damning study, Migrant Workers’ Access to Justice at Home: Nepal, puts a lot of the blame squarely on Nepali labour brokers.

‘Despite Nepal’s efforts to protect migrant workers, it is generally failing to hold private recruitment companies and individual agents accountable, and the vast majority of workers remain unable to access compensation or other forms of justice in Nepal or abroad,’ the study reports.

The study also points that the laws governing recruitment and placement of Nepali migrant workers are relatively robust, but their implementation and enforcement weak. The exploitation of the migrant labour continues, and impunity is entrenched.

The average annual remittance from migrant labour is nearly 25 per cent of Nepal’s GDP of Rs 1.71 trillion, up from 20 per cent just three years ago. Most district capitals in the hinterland have seen a huge infusion of cash, which has led to a boom in construction, education and retail sectors.

And how are we treating the people who have been making such significant contributions in propping up our economy?  CESLAM’s paper does not mince words: ‘The story of labour migration begins and ends at home. The vulnerability of Nepali migrant workers to exploitation abroad is heightened by routine misconduct committed in Nepal during the pre-departure phase by individual agents, recruitment agencies, and other private actors.’

Most of this is not new, there is a shocking story of mistreatment and cheating of vulnerable workers in the media nearly every day. But clearly, the reports are not helping to curb impunity since the guilty do not fear punishment.

After international uproar  generated by exposés on the mistreatment of Nepali workers, there have been insinuations that the West is unfairly targeting Qatar in order to relocate the venue of the 2022 World Cup. We are barking up the wrong tree: this is not about football, it is about decent pay, acceptable working conditions and protection for migrant workers both in Nepal and the host country.

The government of Nepal and other migrant-exporting countries are mum about the kafala system of bonded labour of their workers in the Gulf because they don’t want to jeopardise their economic lifeline and youth employment safety valve. What the governments forget is that this is not a one-way traffic: the Gulf countries need the cheap labour as much as we need the money they send home.

With individual governments unable and unwilling to take on the issue with the host countries, there is urgent need to develop a coordinated South Asian approach. Instead of undercutting each other in migrant worker pay, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka could work on bargaining collectively for better working conditions for South Asian countries. The forthcoming SAARC Summit could be the ideal forum to launch this initiative.

In Nepal’s case, as the CESLAM study emphasises, there is an urgent need to rein in recruiting agencies which are at the frontlines of the abuse of worker rights. They mistreat aspirant workers, over-charge for tickets, permits and travel documents, and provide forged documents or abandon them at airports in Doha, Dubai or Bahrain. Those that do make it have to work for at least six months just to pay back the recruiters’ fees, often their salaries are nowhere near what was promised. Many of the recruiters have political protection.

We don’t need more research or media exposés about the abuse and exploitation of our workers, we need government agencies with teeth that can protect the millions of Nepali who shed blood, sweat and tears to prop up this country.


Read also:

Hydropower and manpower, Editorial

The Dark Side of International Migration, Thalif Deen

Modern day slavery, Dewan Rai

Working to death

The power of Nepal’s man power

Helping workers abroad


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