Work or perishThe state is morally bound to safeguard its citizens working in precarious conditions abroad.
Two news stories published in the past couple of days have put a spotlight on the plight of Nepali citizens, especially the poor and vulnerable who are often forced to take risks to earn a living in foreign lands as the state continues to turn its back on them. One, published in the Post in association with the Centre for Investigative Journalism-Nepal, explores how Nepalis who are injured or killed while working for American contractors in US war zones like Afghanistan and Iraq are often sent home with only token compensation—or none at all.
The other news is about Qatar raising minimum wage and lifting curbs on changing jobs for migrant workers. The Gulf nation, which is hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, has been invariably chided by rights bodies for exploiting migrant workers. But this time around, it has earned accolades by agencies like the United Nations and Amnesty International. Qatar is among the most favoured destinations for Nepali migrant workers and hosts around 400,000 Nepalis as per the latest Nepal Migration Report.
The two news stories expose the contradiction that Nepalis seeking work in foreign destinations are confronted with: They risk losing their lives when they work in foreign labour destinations, but have no option but to work there and have to be happy if the destination country reforms its working conditions even if the reform is minuscule.
The lack of employment at home and the state’s absolute indifference towards its citizens abroad have for long put millions of poor Nepalis between a rock and a hard place. An estimated 1,500 Nepalis used to leave the country legally for jobs in the Persian Gulf, Malaysia and South Korea before the pandemic-induced lockdown. Then there are some ‘lucrative’ destinations that Nepal has banned for Nepali migrant workers but still attract the desperate Nepalis who reach there via alternative routes. Those destinations promise good remunerations but come with huge risks.
Chandra Pun Magar of Banke died last year in Kabul, Afghanistan while working for a US contractor when Taliban suicide bombers attacked the compound where US officials and the workers were housed. Kishor Singh Thakuri was wounded in his stomach from a bullet accidentally fired by American soldiers. Both were denied proper compensation. They were unaware of the legal procedures and lacked the wherewithal to challenge the pittance they were paid in compensation. But the Nepali state has been oblivious to such events concerning the lives of its citizens all along.
Doha’s recent announcement to reform its labour laws, raise the minimum wage by 25 percent to 1,000 riyals ($275 or Rs32,203) a month and scrap the requirement for workers to get permission from their employers to change jobs are sure to receive appreciation in Nepal. After all, Nepali migrants workers’ sweat and blood in foreign lands like Qatar has helped the country’s economy remain afloat. Remittance accounts for around one-third of the country’s economy. But how the Nepali state fails to respond when its citizens are ill-treated or cheated in the destination countries needs no explanation. The recent erratic moves by the government regarding the Nepalis stranded in various countries after they lost their jobs to the pandemic show just how apathetic it is towards its citizens.
Despite pledges from several governments in the past, none has found a way to retain the workforce in the country. Poverty is a major factor that forces many Nepali youths to leave home. And out of desperation, some even choose to embark on risky journeys and land where their work is fraught with danger. There’s an urgent need for the government to check people’s illegal migration to work as mercenaries in war zones.
And should a situation arise, like in the cases of Chandra Pun Magar and Kishor Singh Thakuri, the government must find the courage to intervene. The government must also ensure that Nepali citizens aren’t cheated and mistreated in destination countries. The government is morally bound to safeguard its citizens and step up to the plate to fulfil its responsibility.