The promised landNepal must ensure that migrant workers are not exploited, here and abroad
Many a Nepali dreams of a land far away, where the desert sands blow harsh and heavy and skyscrapers as tall as the Himalaya reach for the clouds. This is where there is a job to be had, a steady one, that brings in more money than they could ever hope to make back home. So many have gone and so many have returned, laden with flat-screen televisions, sleek new mobile phones and two-litre bottles of Johnny Walker. Their families have built new homes, bought new land and ride around on new motorbikes. The money they send back keeps the Nepali economy afloat—Rs6 billion every year, by some accounts.
A shadow looms over this tale of prosperity. In the Middle East, where geopolitics is unstable, the laws are harsh and climate unwelcoming, there is as much death as there is wealth. In Qatar, where Nepalis constitute the largest group of migrant workers, 1,326 Nepali migrant workers have died in the last nine years, according to the Foreign Employment Promotion Board. Even those who come back alive tell harrowing tales of exploitation, abuse, discrimination and abject loneliness. And yet, every year thousands take the same route, boarding a plane that will take them away to an uncertain land, where their hours will be long, their work tough, the weather hot and the city unfriendly.
But for many migrant workers, exploitation begins before they have even left the country. Employment agencies in Nepal are notorious for charging prospective migrants millions for the opportunity to migrate, citing visa fees, medical tests and red tape bureaucracy. Many migrants are thus in debt before they even board a plane. A new agreement being pursued by Labour Minister Gokarna Bista seeks to do away with these fees, providing some measure of respite. The new agreement between Nepal and Qatar would eliminate all visa, medical and bureaucratic fees. However, the agreement was proposed earlier this year and there is still no saying when it will be signed.
If and when signed, this agreement could ease the burden on workers, but it alone will not be enough. Qatar is not as distressing as it used to be just a few years ago. In 2014, an exposé by The Guardian newspaper on the plight of migrant workers building new stadiums for the 2022 World Cup led to international outrage and pressure on the Qatari government to better working conditions. This led directly, in 2016, to the abolition of the regressive kafala system, where workers could not switch jobs or leave the country without the permission of their Qatari employers. But conditions remain exploitative, argues Amnesty International. The Nepal government should work on more government-to-government agreements with Qatar, along with all of the other labour-receiving countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia, so that working conditions are improved and workers’ rights are ensured.
Labour migration has become a harsh reality for Nepal; and until stable employment conditions are created here, thousands will continue to migrate in search of a better life. Those conditions are a long way coming. Until then, Nepal can work to ensure that migrants are not cheated before they leave and are not exploited when they land.