Migrant workers paid hefty sums for overseas jobs and returned. Now they are waiting for compensation for their lossesA large number of migrant workers returned home empty-handed with loans after losing their overseas jobs. Migrant rights activists say these workers should be compensated.
Chandan Kumar Mandal
Unemployed, Raju Parajuli thought a cleaner job in Dubai in exchange for Rs125,000 was not that bad of an offer. After borrowing the amount from a local moneylender at an annual interest rate of 12 percent, Parajuli from Chautara Sangachowkgadhi Municipality, Sindhupalchowk decided to try his luck abroad.
“There are no jobs here in Nepal, as we all know,” said Parajuli. “Being educated is not enough to feed your family. At one point you have to earn money as well. I also tried going abroad.”
With the hope of repaying loans and making good money, Parajuli flew on December 26, 2019, to Dubai through the Basundhara-based recruiting agency—MB Human Resources Pvt Ltd.
But things didn’t go as expected from the very first month. The recruiting agency and the sub-agent had promised him a monthly income of between 1,200-1,500 UAE Dirhams (approximately Rs38,288-47,861).
According to Parajuli, he was told that he would get a basic salary of AED 800 for eight hours of work. “But the company told me that it was mandatory to work for 12 hours and I would get a maximum of AED 950,” said Parajuli. “They paid me only AED 600 during the first month, and then AED 700 the next.”
The story of hardship is similar for nearly 450 of his Nepali co-workers in the UAE, according to Parajuli. Things only worsened in the coming months, followed by a dispute between the employers and workers. The company eventually shut down on March 15. Then came the Covid-19 blow.
“The income was never as expected. Workers were not paid anything since March 15,” said Parajuli. “During the pandemic and lockdown, we were stranded without food and money for several months. Somehow we managed to return home.”
Parajuli and tens of thousands of Nepali migrant workers have suffered abroad due to the pandemic and had to return home empty-handed after losing their jobs.
“Around 350 workers from my company had bought tickets to return home until June 26 (when I returned)..Some had managed money by selling pieces of jewellery, taking loans, and borrowing from friends. Fifty others couldn’t even do that,” said Parajuli, who paid AED 1,320 for the flight ticket.
Now workers like Parajuli, who not only lost their jobs, for which they had paid a handsome amount but also paid for their return tickets, are demanding compensation.
Parajuli, now 24, and four other friends have approached the recruiting agency and Department of Foreign Employment for compensation.
When coronavirus crept into Nepal’s labour destination countries, which are mainly Persian Gulf countries, Malaysia and South Korea, tens of thousands of Nepali workers were rendered jobless.
After struggling for their safety and basic needs for several months during the pandemic, a large number of those who could return to Nepal have lost their income and prospect of paying the loans they had taken for funding their overseas jobs.
Another worker Bed Bahadur Lamichhane had paid Rs180,000 for a job in Saudi Arabia.
“I stayed there for a total of 15 months before the lockdown happened. For the first two months, there was no work,” said Lamichhane from Okhaldhunga. “My company didn’t pay me anything after the pandemic began. I stayed locked inside my room. Finally, I got money from my family in Nepal and returned home after buying the ticket myself.”
According to the Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre (CCMC), a total of 227,233 Nepalis, mostly migrant workers, have returned from various countries since the government started evacuating them.
Following a Supreme Court order, the government had prepared a directive to provide financial assistance to stranded migrant workers to buy tickets to return home.
The directive had also mandated the Nepali missions in labour destination countries to ensure that workers were paid their dues before they board their flight. However, a majority of workers have returned home empty-handed, facing ‘wage theft.’
Calls for compensating these workers, who have lost their jobs and are trapped in “debt bondage”, have been growing louder lately.
According to Shom Luitel, a lawyer with expertise on migrant workers’ rights, workers could not benefit from the government’s repatriation schemes, but arrangements should be made to compensate them for their losses.
“All these years, there have been several policies for zero cost jobs, free visa and free ticket scheme, employer’s pay model. However, workers have continued to pay hefty amounts, which often come from loans taken at exorbitant rates,” said Luitel. “In the last few months, when they returned home due to the pandemic, most of them have debts to pay.”
Luitel said a large number of workers have not even recovered the money they had invested to secure overseas jobs.
“Compensating these hard-hit workers is possible according to foreign employment-related laws,” said Luitel. “The Foreign Employment Act has provisions on repatriating workers and also compensating them if needed.
As per Section 75 of the Foreign Employment Act, 2007 when “workers have to be immediately brought back to Nepal due to a war, epidemic, natural calamity in the country where such workers are engaged in employment, the Government of Nepal shall make arrangements for repatriating such workers.”
The same law says, if any employer does not provide employment as per the terms prescribed in the agreement, the worker or his or her agent may file a complaint at the Department of Foreign Employment, along with evidence for compensation. Upon inquiry, the department can ask the recruiting agencies to compensate for all expenses incurred by workers while applying for foreign employment.
Likewise, Section 33 focuses on utilising the Foreign Employment Welfare Fund, which can be spent on worker’s welfare programmes, compensating in case of deaths or injury, and supporting migrant workers’ families.
“Workers who have returned before their contract expired can be supported from the same welfare fund. The law makes it possible,” said Luitel. “The money at the fund belongs to them. Migrant workers have contributed to the fund. There is money and also the law so why should not these poor workers be helped?”
The government can develop guidelines by limiting the maximum months for providing support to returnee migrant workers, suggested Luitel.
“If not all, then the government can provide compensation for those who lost their jobs and had to return after six months or nine months of going on foreign employment,” said Luitel.
Officials also agree that financial relief to such workers could be provided. “If the compensation amount can be covered from the welfare fund, the Foreign Employment Board can make the decision,” said Hari Prasad Mainali, a joint secretary with the Labour, Employment and Social Security Ministry. “It is not that it can’t be done at all as we already have data on returnee migrant workers. The board should be convinced as well.”
Parajuli and his four other friends’ attempt to receive compensation has not yielded results so far. The department has refused to accept the complaint but accepted another application seeking reimbursement for their airfare. The recruiting agency has not yet made a call.
“Rather, they asked us to pay some more money so that they can send us to another country,” said Parajuli. “There were days when we worked for nearly 18 hours. But we did not get our money.”
However, Parajuli is determined to get his money back by any means.
“I have paid Rs125,000, and the amount I should be getting as compensation is around Rs 250,000, which is not a small amount. Many of my friends have taken loans for jobs and returned home empty-handed,” said Parajuli. “I am already frustrated with all these processes. But I know I deserve the compensation because I have migrated after taking a labour permit and contributing to the welfare fund.”