Opening new doorsTwenty four year-old Meena BK (name changed) from Dang district was coerced into marrying an alcoholic by her relatives when she was only 16.
Twenty four year-old Meena BK (name changed) from Dang district was coerced into marrying an alcoholic by her relatives when she was only 16. Her parents had died when she was a child. At 18, she gave birth to a son. Meena’s husband neither gave her money to run the household, nor did he take care of them. Hoping to provide a better future for her son, Meena began exploring foreign employment opportunities. She had gathered from agents that it did not cost money to find work abroad as a domestic worker and that they even arranged passports for those interested. Aware of Meena’s plans, her cousin referred her to the Information and Counselling Centre run by the Safer Migration Project. Meena was advised to go as a garment worker instead. They also encouraged her to sign up for free garment skills training for women in Kathmandu prior to leaving for foreign employment. Meena heeded their advice and enrolled in Garment Machine Operator training for a month and went to Jordan as a machine operator without paying a single penny. Within three months of joining the company, she was promoted to assist the line manager and now earns Rs45,000 per month and is also paid for overtime.
Like Meena, lots of women choose foreign employment as a means for a better future. Unfortunately, employment options abroad for most women are limited due to lack of skill, education and relevant information. They rely on local unregistered agents, who are usually people they know personally, for information related to foreign employment.
Presently, the Nepali government has imposed a complete ban on domestic work, especially in the Gulf and Malaysia. Consequently, women have become more vulnerable since they cannot go abroad through legal means. One aspiring female migrant from Dhading expressed, “I don’t know when the government will lift the ban on domestic work. If I wait for the ban to be lifted, who will feed my family till then?” Left without an alternative to fulfil their basic needs, many aspiring women migrants like her travel to prohibited countries either using false documents or by taking risky routes. Ironically, the ban on migration as domestic workers has encouraged unregistered agents to flourish because the women choose to hide from concerned authorities throughout the migration processes because they fear litigation.
To address this predicament, NGOs have started to look for safer out-migration opportunities for their beneficiaries. Employment in the garment sector in Jordan looks promising because there is mass recruitment of women workers, factories and hostels are safe and secure, salaries are paid on time, and most importantly, women can go without paying recruitment agencies. A free garment training programme lasting a month was started in Kathmandu through collaboration with training institutes. Conducting the training was initially a challenge as women were reluctant to come to Kathmandu for the month-long training programme. Additionally, the literacy rate was so low that they could not meet the minimum requirement of the companies.
In response, life-skills with sessions on new place adjustment, family and financial management, health care, and basic mathematics was incorporated into the skill training to better prepare the women for the new environment.
Training institutes have been able to find few recruitment agencies that avail the free visa and free ticket provision and send women migrants abroad without charging them any money. In a scenario where recruitment agencies are criticised for charging high recruitment fees, adherence to the free visa free ticket policy by some recruitment agencies became an instant hit with the women migrants. Good reviews from the trainees about the training and the work environment in Jordan led to widespread interest in garment training among potential migrant workers and an overwhelming increase in enrolment. 1,474 women were trained and 83 percent were employed in various garment industries in Jordan from November 2014 to July 2017.
The garment industry is part of the formal sector that has fixed working hours, pays for overtime work, has holidays as per company rules, and arranges accommodation and food. The companies in this industry also provide insurance and social security. On the other hand, domestic workers have extensive working hours, live in the employer’s house, do not have holidays or overtime payment, and are highly susceptible to various forms of exploitation. The average earning of a garment worker in Jordan is Rs25,000 per month—an attractive salary for work in a relatively safer environment for impoverished, less educated women.
So far, there have not been any complaints regarding difference in work duties, payment of salaries, and provision of meals and accommodation from women migrants who went to Jordan. This is an incredible statistic in the foreign employment sector which is plagued with numerous cases of labour exploitation and false promises. Garment industries in Jordan are a safe destination for women like Meena because the companies cater to big brands. The buyers are cautious of poor treatment of workers by factory owners because such activities tarnish their brand image. This ensures that the workers are not exploited and are treated fairly.
For these reasons, working in the garment industry can be regarded as a superior alternative for aspiring women out-migrants who consider going abroad as domestic workers.
Though it is the responsibility of the government to create income opportunities for women within the country, the state has not been successful in creating jobs with good pay. Lack of appropriate work and salary in Nepal has pushed women to seek work abroad. The government should ensure that aspiring workers have either received training for appropriate skills or have enough work experience in the trade they will be employed in. They should be well-informed about safe migration and the support mechanisms available.
The government should also ensure that workers go through proper channels to minimise risks and to guarantee safer and beneficial migration. Implementing a ban on domestic work will not end the problems. The government must envision better and safer alternatives to fulfil the basic needs of socially and economically disadvantaged women. Information on the garment trade should be widely propagated so that more aspiring women migrants choose this as an option instead of domestic work. The government has recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Jordanian government regarding employment for Nepalis which is a positive step towards safer migration. Exploration of safer trades and safer destination countries, especially for women, needs to be a priority for the government.
Pradhan and Baniya are associated with Safer Migration Project (SaMi)/HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation Nepal