Pandemic has once again thrown light on plights of Nepali women migrant workersBlanket ban on women from migrating overseas for employment has only encouraged labour trafficking and exploitation, labour migration experts and rights groups say.
On March 17, just a week before Nepal imposed a nationwide lockdown, 17 Nepali women arrived at the Abu Dhabi International Airport in the United Arab Emirates. The UAE was supposed to be their layover destination before they flew to Kuwait and Iraq for employment. The women, who had travelled all the way from the Indian capital of Delhi, were received by a Bangladeshi man, who called himself Rupen, at the airport. Rupen was their recruitment agent.
Upon landing in the UAE, Rupen told the women that they would have to stay in Abu Dhabi for a few days before their connecting flights to Kuwait and Iraq were arranged. However, two days into their arrival in the UAE, the Persian Gulf state suspended all flight services on March 19 in view of the coronavirus threats.
“Our passports had already been taken by Rupen to arrange for our travel documents and visas to Kuwait and Iraq,” Bimala, who along with 16 other Nepali women had reached the UAE, told the Post through an online calling app. “For the next two months, all of us were stuck at Rupen’s apartment.”
Things were not looking up for Bimala and the other women, as the UAE government extended the coronavirus lockdown and flight restrictions.
Rupen then convinced the women that he would find them jobs as housemaids in the UAE itself. He took all the 17 women to a recruitment agency.
After they reached the agency, Al Mashriq Al Hadi Travels, their situation took a turn for the worse.
“Once we were handed over to the agency, they stuffed us in a bare room and locked the door. We were not allowed to go outside and we received food only once a day. At times, we were severely beaten up. We were treated like caged animals,” said Bimala, who asked to be identified only by her first name out of her safety concerns.
Bimala said they were not the only ones being held hostage by the so-called agency.
“There were eight other women from other countries in the room where we were being held,” said Bimala. “We were told to stay inside the room until the ‘customers’ hired us as their domestic workers.”
After being trapped in the room for 15 days, on June 1, Bimala and two other Nepali women managed to run away from their captors.
In an unknown foreign city, the three women were fortunate to meet a Nepali taxi driver, who Bimala said was kind enough to help them. He got Bimala and the other two women in touch with the UAE chapter of Non-Resident Nepal Association.
The three women are currently under the care of the association. The other 14 women are believed to be still in captivity.
Now Bimala and two other Nepali women are waiting to return to Nepal. But without passports and other travel documents, which they said were with the agency, they are unable to return right away.
“The agency has confiscated their passports. When we asked them to hand them over to us, the agency demanded 42,000 Dirhams (equivalent to Rs 1.3 million) from us,” said Ujjwal Dhakal, president of Regional Coordination Council Al Ain of NRNA-UAE.
Dhakal said that the three women haven’t got any support from the Nepali embassy in Abu Dhabi either.
“In the beginning, when we had requested the embassy to take these women in its shelter house, the embassy denied our request saying that they cannot do so due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, we have been requesting the embassy to make their travel documents and register their names on the repatriation list, but to no avail,” said Dhakal.
The government has finalised the guidelines for repatriating the Nepali migrant workers stranded overseas amid the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the guidelines, only those migrant workers who have valid labour permits and the proof that their employers or the host country are not paying for their airfares will be considered for free-of-charge repatriation.
Bimala and her friends do not qualify for repatriation as per the government’s guidelines, according to Manju Gurung, the president of Pourakhi Nepal, an organisation working for the rights and welfare of women migrant workers.
“These women are regarded as undocumented by the government, which disqualifies them from getting financial support from the government. However, during this pandemic, the government should show compassion towards their plight,” Gurung told the Post.
Kalpana Rai, board member of the UAE chapter of NRNA, said the three women will be able to return to Nepal only if the embassy cooperates with their circumstances.
“For the repatriation flight, one needs to pay above 300-500 dollars, which these women cannot afford,” said Rai.
The Post’s repeated attempts to talk to the Nepali embassy in Abu Dhabi failed.
Despite the 2016 government’s ban on Nepali women from taking up jobs as domestic workers in the Gulf countries, every year thousands of Nepali women end up reaching these countries through illegal channels. Labour migration experts and human rights groups have repeatedly criticised the blanket ban policy adopted by the government as a measure to protect Nepali women from potential labour exploitation. If anything, critics of the policy say restricting women from going abroad for employment has raised the risk of trafficking and exploitation.
Only this past week, 21 Nepali women were rescued from the Indian state of Manipur. They were planning to go to the Persian Gulf states for employment via Myanmar. The economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic has greatly affected the Nepali migrant workers, but it is the women workers who have been hit hardest.
The International Labour Organization’s latest assessment of ‘Covid-19 and the World of Work,’ also pointed out how women workers have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic since the pandemic has financially affected the hospitality sector, the economy many female migrants depend on.While migrant women like Bimala have been left stranded in the foreign land amid the pandemic, those women who had been working in the Middle East are said to be laid off, deprived of wages and forced to overwork. For the majority of them, they have nowhere to turn to for help.
One year ago, Anu, 24, had come to UAE to work as a cleaner in a hotel. However, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the hospitality sector in the UAE, she struggled to survive. For five months she went on jobless. What little savings she had, she spent on food and rent..
“I was making 1,200 Dirhams per month. When the Covid-19 pandemic began, the hotel manager not only abruptly laid me off from the job, he also denied my one month’s salary,” Anu told the Post.
After remaining jobless for months, Anu recently secured a job at an Indian restaurant, where she receives half the salary compared to her previous job.
“Here I have to work around 10-12 hours everyday without weekly days off and I get paid only 600 Dirhams. But I cannot even complain about it,” she said.
Anu counts herself lucky because 15 other Nepali female friends of hers are still jobless after they too were laid off following the pandemic.
There is a common thread to the stories of Anu and her friends and Bimala and 16 other Nepali women: of restrictive government policy that forced them to take illegal channels to reach foreign lands for jobs.
Labour migration experts say when Nepali women reach the labour countries, they are regarded as undocumented workers, and when they get exploited and abused at the hands of their employers and recruitment agencies, they are often reluctant to seek help from the government. According to them, the government must regulate female labour migration if it wants to stem labour trafficking and exploitation.
Until then, women will continue to take illegal channels to go abroad for employment. It’s a risk that they are willing to take to build a better life for themselves and their families back home, and not everyone will succeed.
“I was supposed to go to Kuwait and earn money but now everything seems so meaningless,” said Bimala. “I just want to get back home.”