This article appears in the Summer 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
Ganesh Bishwakarma left for Qatar in 2013 to join the thousands of migrant workers hired to work on construction projects for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. He had a dream of earning enough to build a comfortable life for himself and his impoverished family in the Dang District of Nepal. Six weeks later, he was back home, in a coffin. The 16-year-old had died of cardiac arrest, leaving his grief-stricken family with a lost son, in deeper poverty than before. His dream had taken him on a journey of exploitation and deceit, involving a fake passport, extortionate recruitment fees, and huge debt—typical of what faces Nepali migrant workers.
Two recent events briefly focused the world’s attention on the plight of Nepali workers in Persian Gulf states, mainly Qatar. First were the terrible earthquakes that rocked Nepal on April 25 and May 12, killing more than 8,000 people and razing many villages that are a source of migrant labor. Many such workers were barred from returning home to help in the devastation and perform the last rites for their loved ones because of their terms of employment, which leave them at the mercy of employers who take away their passports and often withhold wages owed. The working conditions are grim, frequently 12 hours a day.
According to Tek Bahadur Gurung, Nepal’s labor minister, his government formally asked construction companies in Qatar to permit Nepali workers to return home after the April 25 earthquake, and to contribute airfare. But workers on World Cup sites were not permitted to go. The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, the body overseeing World Cup projects in Qatar, reported that more than 500 Nepali workers were given temporary leave—out of more than 400,000 Nepalese working on the project.
Qatar, like other Gulf states, applies what’s known as the kafala system of indentured servitude, which limits the rights of movement for foreign workers. This has led to widespread exploitation, with workers’ passports being seized when they reach their destination. The system ties them to their employers for a set period, and they cannot change their job without permission.
The second attention-grabbing event that briefly focused attention on migrant workers in the Gulf was the construction of the stadiums that Qatar is building for the 2022 World Cup. The prosecution of senior FIFA officials for taking bribes raised the question of how the world football federation could have possibly awarded the 2022 soccer tournament to Qatar, a despotic nation with horrific summer heat.
The construction of the stadiums has attracted thousands of Nepali migrant workers to Qatar. All told, some 1.4 million migrants, mostly Nepalese and other South Asians, are working on a $200 billion construction spree. The Nepalese, the largest single national group, typically travel to Doha after borrowing money from family and friends, and often after paying corrupt recruiters. When they arrive, they typically find that the wages and working conditions are far from what was offered. Instead, they are in a status akin to indentured servitude. The Guardian conducted an undercover investigation and found out that Nepali migrant workers are dying at a rate of one person every two days. They are mostly young men who suffer heart attacks or heart failures, or die from workplace incidents or from working in temperatures that are higher than 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
I am a former journalist in Nepal. I’ve worked for donors and civil-society organizations working in human rights and economic development. Filling out the departure form at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport, I was approached by a hesitant middle-aged man from the Terai region of Nepal, asking for help in filling out his own form. The man could hardly read and could not write. He was going as a migrant laborer to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), he said, to work in “some” factory, doing “something.” He did not know the details.
I asked him why he was leaving the comforts of home to go to a strange country for a couple of thousand Nepali rupees. “To make the lives of my family better,” he said. This is the standard answer of almost all the young and middle-aged men and the few women who leave their country every day. The National Population and Housing Census of 2011 places the absentee population of Nepal at more than 1.9 million, nearly 7 percent of Nepal’s total population of about 30 million. Most of these Nepalese are migrant laborers, and some 300,000 leave their homeland to seek work every year. Emigration from Nepal has increased by 37 percent in the past two years.
Nepal underwent a decade-long civil war that ended in 2006, and is still grappling to find an economic and political foothold. The biggest challenge has been creating enough jobs for its ever-increasing youth population. The exact unemployment rate in the country is debatable, but the figure is estimated to be around 46 percent. And 25.2 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
The combination of poverty and unemployment is why the only international airport in the country is full of people like the weary and lost man who approached me. This was not the first time someone had approached me, and it would not be the last, either. Another time a few years ago at the New Delhi airport, I met a young boy who had been turned away from immigration in Qatar and was totally bewildered, with not a cent in his pocket. When he got into the airport in Qatar, the most common destination for Nepali migrant workers, the immigration officials did not let him through because his papers were not legal.
The overseas recruitment company to which he had paid more than 100,000 Nepali rupees (about $1,000) in order to get a job in Qatar had apparently duped him. He was stuck in New Delhi with no money to fly back to Nepal. I often wonder what became of him. He was handed fake contract papers by the recruitment agency that exploited his poverty and innocence, very likely putting him into significant debt. (The labor agreement between Nepal and Qatar forbids recruitment fees, but recruitment agencies charge up to $1,500 per person.)
Qatar is an attractive destination because of the promise of higher wages and potentially skilled work. The government of Nepal tries to set minimum wages for Nepalese migrant laborers based on skill levels. It seeks to persuade the government of Qatar to enforce these wage standards, but they are routinely violated. Even so, the promised wages are generally higher than anything on offer on Nepal; they act as a magnet. Direct flights from Kathmandu to Doha also make it an easily accessible destination for Nepali workers. Now there are multiple flights every day that take migrant workers to Doha.
LABOR MIGRATION TO THE PERSIAN GULF, Korea, India, and other nations has changed Nepal from a mostly farming economy to one in which the fastest-growing sector is remittances. On the one hand, the workers are horribly exploited, and in some respects remittances substitute for genuine economic development. On the other hand, this money flow, almost 30 percent of Nepal’s gross domestic product—as much as 40 percent according to some estimates—is a mixed blessing. According to Central Bureau of Statistics, fully 58.8 percent of households received remittances in 2010 and 2011. That represented an increase from 31.9 percent in 2003–2004, and 23.4 percent in 1995–1996.
TVs and mobile phones have become common. People are better-fed and better-dressed than before. Many have access to health facilities. Brick homes are displacing mud huts, and private schools have proliferated. Thanks in part to remittances, the extreme poverty rate (officially defined as less than a dollar a day) dropped from 33.5 percent in 1990 to 16.4 percent in 2013.
Nepali workers queue up for a chance to work overseas—for a pittance.
With husbands gone, women are both more empowered and more responsible for family affairs. As women are thrust to the top of the family hierarchy, many are unprepared to take on the responsibility of family, home, and day-to-day survival all by themselves. While migration has offered new income opportunities, it also exposes women to trafficking. Reports indicate that 10,000 to 15,000 persons (mostly women and children) are trafficked every year for commercial sex and forced labor. Many of these girls find themselves infected with HIV. Seasonal labor migration to India has also emerged as a major factor driving the localized HIV epidemic in Nepal.
A 2011 World Bank report warned that “no country has ever succeeded in sustaining growth and job creation on remittance alone.” In many respects, the reliance on remittances is a reflection of the collapse of Nepal’s own economy. Nepali economists warn of a potential “Dutch disease” of over-reliance on one sector. Nepal’s dependence on remittances means that an economic downturn in the overseas destination countries and a return of migrants could leave Nepal’s economy vulnerable to events it can’t control. With a large number of its people working abroad, Nepal has also lost a lot of productive labor.
The root cause of the migrant labor problem lies in Nepal, where there is too little domestic economic activity—and too few jobs. For the migrants, it is better to face the horrible working conditions in the Persian Gulf and be able to send money to their families so their children can go to decent schools, elderly parents can eat well, and their wives can wear good clothes than to face being unemployed and poor in Nepal.
There are many villages in Nepal where labor migration has become central to the culture of the community. Relatives, friends, and neighbors who work abroad become role models. Those who do succeed overseas gain status when they return home. Korea, Malaysia, and the Persian Gulf are preferred destinations, as well as neighboring India, which is easy to get to.
ON PAPER, THE GOVERNMENT of Nepal has significantly strengthened the labor migration framework since granting permission for migrants to work in foreign countries, beginning in the early 1990s. Three progressively stronger laws regulating the terms of foreign employment, passed in 2007, 2008, and 2012, have offered outward migrants legal protection. The Foreign Employment Act of 2007 provides for fines and even imprisonment in cases where recruitment agencies break the law. But enforcement is spotty and penalties for the most common violations are relatively low. For recruiting agencies, an occasional fine is just a cost of doing business. And there is a great deal of extralegal recruitment activity as well.
Though the act does not allow unregistered individual agents to recruit for foreign employment, it does not penalize recruitment agencies that use unregistered agents. As a result, efforts to register agents with recruitment agencies have largely failed, and agencies are rarely held accountable for the actions of the agents on whom they rely. This invites rampant extortion of the poor, unsuspecting young men desperate to leave the country for employment.
Individual recruitment agents are substantially beyond the control of the authorities. These agents function outside the legal framework. Undocumented workers, especially women, often go to India, an easy access point for migrants who lack formal documentation; they can easily fly on to other countries from there. Agents in India and Bangladesh facilitate the process, using fake passports and false contract papers, as well as forged tourist visas.
Migrants themselves, often women working as domestic servants, are drawn to the illegal sector because it provides faster documentation and looser monitoring than the official process. Because these domestic workers are undocumented, they cannot turn to either the home government or the host government for help when they are abused. One such worker was Shanti Maya Dong, who slipped through India to work in Kuwait as domestic help. After five years on the job, she jumped from the fifth floor of a building and was sent home paralyzed and in a coma after spending four years in a hospital in Kuwait. After four years at home, she died in her bed. The family did not get any compensation, as Dong was an illegal worker. But the family is so mired in poverty that in spite of this tragedy, two of her brothers went for work abroad.
The deeper problem is that the government of Nepal has almost no effective leverage over the government of Qatar. Despite International Labour Organization conventions against migrant labor abuses, those norms are seldom enforced. Nepal itself has yet to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, the ILO Domestic Workers Convention, or the U.N. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. More powerful governments, like the U.S. and the EU, which might press Qatar to improve its labor standards, have bigger fish to fry, including oil access and national security concerns. Nepal’s own embassy in Qatar is understaffed and overwhelmed with complaints. Thus, Nepali migrants to the Gulf are left with no real protection.
If the Nepal government is not in a position to create jobs for the legions of men and women leaving the country, it should reform the legislative and judicial system as well as find a greater political will to implement and enforce existing laws. It should also strengthen and strictly enforce rules for recruitment agencies so that prospective workers know their rights and don’t get duped.
In 2014, Qatar promised to replace the kafala system of indentured servitude with new legislation, but according to the Qatari Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, it still hasn’t done so. The Nepal government must pursue this with Qatar to guarantee the safety and human rights of Nepali workers. It must also ensure that its embassies in countries like Qatar are fully equipped, with trained staff and adequate resources to protect its citizens. This past April, Qatar’s labor minister, Abdullah bin Saleh al-Khulaifi, visited Kathmandu, promising reforms. Yet he also said that his nation would be recruiting even more Nepali workers to work on World Cup stadiums and related infrastructure projects.
Though this is seemingly good news for Nepal, which needs as much resources as it can get to rebuild the country after the two earthquakes, the question is: At what cost? The most important thing Nepal could do for its citizens is to ensure a stable government that creates conducive infrastructure for jobs, so that the youth of Nepal do not have to leave their country and subject themselves to brutal exploitation in order to survive.