Caught in the deadlockAs the recent diplomatic crisis in Qatar unfolds, Nepal has seen a drop in the number of labour permit applications for that country, with the Department of Foreign Employment (DoFE) reporting a 42 percent decline in June/July compared to April/May.
Marco Kuan Long Lam
As the recent diplomatic crisis in Qatar unfolds, Nepal has seen a drop in the number of labour permit applications for that country, with the Department of Foreign Employment (DoFE) reporting a 42 percent decline in June/July compared to April/May. As a result of the transport blockade imposed by neighbouring countries, food shortage has become the most critical problem affecting the population, of which 88 percent are migrant workers. Currently, more than 400,000 Nepali migrant workers are estimated to be living in Qatar.
For research purposes, I corresponded with a number of Nepali migrant workers in Qatar, and their vulnerable situation quickly became evident.
Bearing the brunt
A Nepali migrant worker in Qatar indicated that, due to a lack of construction materials imported from Saudi Arabia and a resultant stagnation in building projects, some construction companies in Qatar have started making workers take a compulsory vacation without compensation and are sending them back to their home countries. Also, some drivers working along the Saudi-Qatari border have been stranded on the Saudi side. During this period of confusion, many migrant workers are unclear about whether or not they will be receiving severance pay, or if they have to find a new employer and sign a new contract.
A Nepali storekeeper working for a wholesale food company in Qatar told me that from the onset, his company circulated a notice asking workers not to tell any outsiders about the crisis. His company could not import food from its main traders in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and vegetable prices soared. Yet it has been able to diversify its import sources and is bringing in food from Europe and Turkey to stabilise prices. Unlike the construction companies, his company did not cut staff or salaries, and six more workers from Nepal, Sri Lanka and India arrived in July. However, migrant workers in Qatar are on the frontlines of the political and economic tension because they have the least mobility and adaptability under the Kafala system.
Most Gulf countries follow the Kafala system under which every migrant worker is contractually tied to a local sponsor (their employer), who is responsible for the worker’s visa and legal residency, and often withholds the worker’s passport. Without obtaining employers’ approval, workers cannot change jobs, quit jobs or leave the country. Criticised by the United Nations as a breach of human rights, this system gives employers excessive control over migrant workers’ income and mobility.
According to a 2016 report by the Ministry of Labour and Employment of Nepal, Qatar is the second most popular destination for Nepali workers. Most Nepali migrants work in the construction industry, mainly developing infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup. However, as stated in an Amnesty International report released in June, Nepali workers in Qatar often experience systematic exploitation, such as late payment or non-payment of salary, or long hours in extreme working conditions. The Guardian revealed that in 2014, Nepali workers in Qatar died at a rate of one in every two days.
Because of the diplomatic row between Qatar and the three Gulf states and Egypt, many Nepali workers have found themselves unable to change jobs or leave the country despite facing job losses or late salary payments. 98 percent of them are men and the sole breadwinners of their families. When their salaries are delayed, things come to a complete standstill for their entire family. Unsurprisingly, Qatar’s media have been relatively silent about the plights faced by the country’s migrant workers. Most live in labour camps on urban outskirts and are rarely seen in public spaces due to their long working hours. They have become the ‘invisible majority’.
A DoFE representative recently claimed, ‘we are optimistic that the crisis in Qatar will be resolved soon and it will not affect the migrant workers there.’ He said that his department would keep assessing the situation of Nepali workers in Qatar, but did not specify how the response or rescue mechanism would work in case the crisis escalated. Migrant workers in Qatar are considered to be at the bottom of Qatari society and will be the first affected, since they face loss of jobs and rising food prices.
In order to protect the welfare of its expatriates, Nepal’s embassy in Qatar does provide various consular services to Nepali citizens. Still, it needs to publicly establish itself as the strongest supporter of Nepali workers at any given moment.
Undoubtedly, the possibility of war is far-fetched, but some migrants recall the 1990 Kuwait war during which the Indian government airlifted over 175,000 of its own expatriates to safety. Is Nepal ready to do this for its expatriates in case of conflict in the Gulf? As a member of various regional and international cooperation platforms, including the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Nepal should bear international responsibilities and promote peace and stability in countries where a huge number of Nepali migrant workers are situated; Nepal should also ensure its workers are treated decently.
In order to protect the large Nepali migrant worker population in the Gulf region and to demonstrate itself as a responsible international actor, Nepal should push its representatives in Qatar and in other Gulf countries to build up an effective communication, response and rescue mechanism.
- Lam is an International Relations student at the London School of Economics and Political Science; he is also an intern at the Centre for Migration and International Relations, Nepal