Raw deal for migrant workersThe government must ensure the rights of out-migrants.
For years, out-migrants have been facing severe challenges—barriers to entering foreign employment—that put them in a hole even before beginning the job that was supposed to change their lives. Some of the notable barriers are exploitative fees collected by manpower agencies, air ticket prices, and visa and health checkup fees collected by the employing countries. Then, when the poor workers reached their destination, many would be surprised to find abusive work environments.
For at least some of the hundreds of thousands that are suffering, there is now some hope. News that the Department of Foreign Employment and the Nepali Embassy in Qatar have managed to secure nearly Rs9 million for about 34 migrants workers left stranded by engineering and plumbing firm Mercury MENA in 2017 is positive. But that it took three years to do so, and only after significant international and national media exposure, and lobbying by Amnesty International, shows how weak the system is when it comes to securing workers’ rights.
The government and its relevant apparatus must ensure safe and secure employment, whether domestically or abroad. And it also must do more to enforce its Free Visa Free Ticket scheme. The administration can no longer allow workers to be exploited before they even start work. Further, it must set up more effective processes to speed up the procedure of getting exploited workers justice and compensation.
When Mercury MENA, which had been contracted to work on football stadiums in Qatar, folded in 2017, it left scores of workers high and dry. These workers, many of them Nepalis, had left everything behind to carve out a livelihood while working in unsafe conditions on Qatar’s prized 2022 FIFA World Cup project. Yet, even before the company folded, it had stopped paying its workers their wages, let alone overtime pay and benefits.
Many, including one Rabindra Kewat, had taken substantial loans to make the move to Qatar happen. In Kewat’s case, he survived on food handouts for six months in Qatar with the hope of collecting on the five months of wages the company had not paid him. After all, getting paid was the only way he could clear his Rs200,000 loan—at 18 per cent interest—and keep his family’s meagre landholding from getting possessed. Yet, three years on, Kewat and many like him continued to suffer a hard life in Nepal, reeling under and impossibly burdened by the loans they had to take in order find work—never mind the government’s promise of implementing a Free Visa Free Ticket scheme.
So, it is indeed great news that the migrant workers yet to receive payment from Mercury MENA are finally getting paid. However, for the poor migrant worker, this will always be a case of too little too late. Like Kewat’s example shows, the exploitation begins much before the worker flies to Qatar. It was in June 2015 when the government decided that migrant workers would not be burdened with more than Rs20,000 in fees. Yet, nearly five years on, workers still complain of exorbitant fees and ticket costs that have them take out costly loans. Their calculation on being able to pay back the loans and ensure a decent livelihood is very much reliant on nothing going wrong. And yet, cases like Mercury MENA happen often.
This is a travesty. That the government has failed to ensure the safety and rights of workers that have given back over Rs4.5 trillion to the country is a joke. Time and again, it has been reprimanded for failing to uphold the rights of out-migrants. Short of finding local employment with a living wage for over 3.5 million out-migrants, the government must do more, and do so immediately.
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