The Plight of Nepalese Migrant Workers

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NEPAL — Nepal is a mountainous country located between India and Chinese Tibet along the Himalayan border. Much of the Nepalese population lives on less than 50 cents per day. As of 2018, the Nepalese poverty line was measured at around 21 percent of the overall population, placing Nepal as one of the world’s poorest countries. With a population of almost 29 million, that places roughly 6.3 million Nepalese people below the poverty level. With inadequate transportation, electric and internet infrastructure, Nepal lacks the necessary elements to spur foreign investment. The addition of these components would help bring the people out of poverty. There are numerous rural mountain areas where people live in poverty and have no access to adequately-paying jobs. This has created an increase in Nepalese migrant workers.

What are Migrant Workers?

Migrant workers are laborers that travel to another country to complete a project or set of projects at the behest of the organization/company. These workers only expect to stay for a set amount of time; however, they should not experience these abuses any more than a native worker should. Amnesty International estimates that around 25,000 people leave Nepal every month to work abroad to support their families. The main destinations for these workers are overwhelmingly Malaysia and Persian Gulf countries like Qatar and Kuwait.

Many migrant workers are recruited through employment agencies. They are promised a set amount of pay every month for the duration of their work. After the employee agrees to the terms of his or her contract, they must pay the employment agency a large fee for their contract processing. This fee is sometimes more than four times the promised monthly pay. Many prospective workers lack the funds to pay the fee. So, numerous workers take out loans to pay the fee, placing them in debt. The workers must also pay for their own medical examinations, which they undergo before hiring. The employment agencies then make arrangements for the workers, sending them to the organization’s current operating country.

The Injustices Against Migrant Workers

When the migrant workers arrive, many of them have their passports confiscated. Additionally, they must pay another fee for a different contract. The contract lessens the promised pay and adds clauses absent in the previous contract that force the laborers to work longer hours and give up certain rights. After this, many workers see little to no pay and experience unsanitary, unsafe, cramped working and living conditions. In many situations like this, a worker would leave and press charges against the agency that abused them so unscrupulously. Yet, in the case of Nepalese migrant workers, staying with the employers is their only option. The jobs are the only way they can pay off the debt they’ve acquired through paying their employment fees.

Some workers want to leave the job anyway and try their luck back in Nepal. However, it is very difficult for them to leave since employers withhold their documentation. In many cases, they are denied a translator and they do not have an adequate understanding of their international worker rights. Due to the immense pressure Nepalese migrant workers face to stay on board with their employers, the workers are often advertised by their employers as “loyal” and “completely dedicated to their work even in adverse environments.”

Protections for Migrant Workers

In order to protect these migrant workers, the United Nations has presented multiple statements calling for the Nepalese government, and any government where these workers are sent, to enact stricter regulations on illegal recruiting practices and enforce employer transparency laws more adequately. The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (UNOHCHR) has cited numerous articles and provisions established in U.N. treaties that protect the rights of workers globally. The vast majority of countries worldwide have signed these treaties. This includes many countries that have a high concentration of Nepalese migrant workers.

Since these countries have agreed to the labor treaties, they have a responsibility to uphold their word. The U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Felipe Gonzalez Morales, stated that the government of Nepal should “revoke the licenses of recruitment agencies that charge fees to migrants … or have abused their human or labor rights.” The government of Nepal says that it is complying by monitoring recruitment agencies and imposing fines on agencies that exploit migrant workers.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has recognized the development benefits of migrant workers for both their host countries and home countries. However, the IOM has also recognized the human rights abuses that Nepalese migrant workers face. The organization has made similar statements to the UNOHCHR, calling for harsh Nepalese reforms. These reforms would restrict and enforce recruitment agencies in Nepal that prey on those in need.

Nepal’s Actions

In response to international criticism, Nepal has finally begun to react to the needs of their workers. Its already-established Foreign Employment Welfare Fund has also been criticized because migrant workers do not know that they can use the $50 million fund to pay for their repatriation to Nepal. Now, however, the Nepalese Foreign Employment Department Director, Mohan Adhikari, has publicly stated that Nepal is working with India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In doing so, they hope to better ensure Nepalese migrant workers are not exploited and abused in their jobs abroad.

More concretely, the Nepalese Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security Joint Secretary Umesh Dhungana has stated that “Nepal is in the process of revising bilateral agreements with destination countries in order to implement the ‘employers pay’ principle and minimize the burden on migrant workers.” The result of these actions is yet to be seen, but the improvements are a step in the right direction. Nepal claims to dedicate itself to protect the rights of its workers is a positive sign. Hopefully, the situation will quickly improve for these workers.

Graham Gordon
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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