On September 25, The Guardian published an article claiming 44 Nepali workers had died in Qatar between June 4 and August 8. The article made international headlines due to its link to preparations for the 2022 World Cup to be hosted in the Gulf country.
However, these revelations would have come as no surprise to the migrant workers themselves, their families, and many in Nepal who are all too aware of the steady stream of coffins that arrive at Tribhuvan International Airport on a daily basis.
Although the article rightly revealed the terrible abuses in Qatar, what was conspicuously missing was the link with where the problems start—in Nepal itself. Without a doubt, recruitment agents, employers and governments in destination countries are a big part of the problem.
However, we must not forget the other half of the migration equation—where the workers come from. In December 2011, Amnesty International published a report, ‘False Promises’, that showed how recruitment agencies in Nepal are abusing migrant workers’ rights and the government is failing in its duty to protect them.
Specifically, there are a number of problems that hamper safe migration in Nepal, with unscrupulous recruitment agencies and brokers playing key roles. They deceive migrants about fundamental aspects of their employment (job type, salary, rest day, etc).
This typically results in migrant workers signing up for something they did not agree to. Most only find out they have been deceived when it is too late, thousands of kilometers from home. This often after they have their passport confiscated by their employers, thus making it very difficult for them to leave.
Debt is another problem. The majority of Nepali migrant workers take out large loans to pay for recruitment fees, averaging around Rs 100,000. These loans come at exorbitant interest rates, sometimes as high as 60 percent per year. This debt means that even when workers find out they have been deceived upon their arrival in Qatar or another host country, they have no choice but to stay back to earn enough to pay the debt.
These problems persist because quite simply the law in Nepal is not being enforced. Few recruitment agents are ever prosecuted for deceiving workers in what amounts to trafficking for forced labour. Fines are levied against a small minority of recruitment agencies via the Foreign Employment Tribunal, but examples of agencies having their licence revoked or ending up in court are all but non-existent. This means that agencies continue to abuse migrants with little fear of punishment or loss of income.
The Foreign Employment Promotion Board, tasked with raising awareness about safe migration, especially in rural areas where most migrant workers come from, has an important role to play in countering deception by brokers and agents. However, given the large sum of money at its disposal—in the Welfare Fund, which the migrants themselves have paid into—much more should have been done to help potential migrant workers understand their rights. This could help prevent problems when they are abroad.
Women face additional challenges due to restrictions imposed by the government on where they can migrate for work. The stark reality is that people who are desperate to escape poverty will migrate anyway, and women are no exception. So, impeded by the law, they are then forced to take the undocumented route via India, which puts them at greater risk to exploitation and disqualifies them from government assistance if things go wrong, which they often do.
With the election fast approaching, political parties and prospective parliamentarians are campaigning across the country. Many of the people they meet will either have a relative, friend or neighbor working abroad and sending money home. You do not need to be an economist to see the benefits these remittances bring. Migration is currently one of the most important political and economic issues for the country. As such, this is an opportune time for political parties to say exactly what they will do to protect the rights of Nepali workers—not just when they are abroad, but even before they leave the country.
Amnesty International urgently calls on all political parties to commit to taking robust action against recruitment agencies that deceive migrant workers. Sanctions should include revoking licences and prosecution. A commitment should be made to provide low interest loans to migrants, via a government-sponsored scheme, to reduce their level of debt. Complaint and redress mechanisms must be made more accessible to migrants, including being decentralized to the district level.
To ensure the safety and well-being of its citizens in destination countries like Qatar, embassies need to be staffed with well-trained and responsive staff. Only with genuine political commitment will the rights of Nepali migrant workers be better protected. And that protection starts in Nepal.
The writer is Director of Amnesty International Nepal