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Migrant workers: A story of opportunities and challenges
NITYA PANDEY: REPUBLICA (published on: 2/7/2014)
Her prematurely lined face speaks volumes about the terrible things she has been through. Her vacant eyes have somehow retained their innocence despite her endless sufferings. Her attempts to smile fail as she reminisces the past year of her life where she has been tricked, impregnated and sold by someone from her village whom she had considered her well-wisher.
“I worry about myself and my daughter all the time. I cannot return home empty handed with a fatherless baby in my arms,” sighs Naina Tamang,*19, a returnee from Kuwait who currently lives in a shelter at Maiti Nepal.
Her story is similar to that of many others who migrate to the Gulf in search of employment. Like her, there are many Nepali women who have been smuggled out on visit visas to foreign countries by local brokers and sold for a few hundred thousand Rupees. Meanwhile, these women undergo physical and mental abuse and are forced to return, often penniless and sometimes incapacitated or with an illegitimate child in tow.
At present, the number of labor migrants from developing countries to more prosperous nations for employment purposes is skyrocketing.
According to the World Bank’s estimation in 2013, globally, the world’s 232 million international migrants are expected to remit earnings worth over US$700 billion by 2016. And Nepal is one of those nations whose economy is highly dependent on the remittances received through its economically active emigrant citizens.
But this economic benefit often comes at a heavy price. It is not always guaranteed that the workers will find a good job and send money home since most of them lead a vulnerable and dreadful life. The truth is that barring a few skilled individuals, most semi-skilled and unskilled workers’ living and working conditions are far below the basic global standards set by the International Labor Organization (ILO) that demands freedom, equity, dignity and security.
Manju Gurung, President of Paurakhi, an organization that works with the returnees, claims that the condition of the women is even more pathetic compared to men. Most of them are smuggled to the Gulf countries as domestic help by local brokers through Indian airports under fake passports. Such women are uneducated, unskilled and unsuspecting of the terrible fate that lies in store for them.
“They are made to work round the clock and are abused, raped and sometimes killed. Even if they manage to escape, most of them return home penniless and scarred, physically and mentally,” she says.
Nepali workers reach the Gulf through manpower agencies or on personal agreements with local agents. At present, the Nepal Government has listed out 767 registered manpower agencies and allotted a maximum sum limit of Rs 80,000 for migration procedures. But there are thousands of unlisted, unrecognized local brokers and agencies that are robbing naïve people of their money, dreams, health and dignity by transporting them into the abyss of inhuman working conditions that can result in illness, incapacitation and even death.
Rohan Gurung, General Secretary of Manpower Association Nepal, says that all agents need to pay Rs 200,000 to the Department of Foreign Employment in order to get registered and work in Nepal. But out of more than 15,000-20,000 agents currently operating in the country, hardly 150 have acquired the formal permit issued by the government.
“The government needs to strictly monitor unregistered agents and agencies and create awareness that it’s wiser and safer to migrate through a registered manpower agency and agent,” he says.
However, even if a worker gets employed by a company through legally permitted means, the fact remains that every employee is required to undergo a three to six month long provision period where he/she needs to learn the skills and responsibilities of the new job. And an unfortunate reality is that most Nepali workers are lagging behind in technical and industrial skills. As a result, they have no choice but to settle for those jobs that demand less skills and offer lower salary and other benefits.
“It’s quite difficult to get a job according to your skills and qualifications once you reach a foreign country,” says Kul Prasad Karki, Vice Chairman of Pravasi Nepali Coordination Committee and a returnee from Saudi Arabia.
Karki had migrated to Saudi Arabia as a photographer back in 1998 through Delhi. Although his agent had promised him a photo studio, it turned out to be a false deal since he landed up in a job at a pharmacy, an area that he had zero knowledge and expertise in.
Regardless of such possibilities, it is always a good idea to migrate to foreign countries only after following all the legal procedures in order to remain on the safe side. For instance, it is essential to obtain a labor permit from the Department of Foreign Employment, have a legitimate passport, the details of the contract issued by the company and a life insurance worth Rs 500,000. The government has no official data regarding the exact number of people who migrate abroad for employment. But being registered in the list of those who have acquired the labor permit always grants you an advantageous position.
Also, working illegally once the contract period is over is like digging yourself a deeper hole. The best bet would be to return to Nepal and get your documents renewed and apply for a new job. And in case the company refuses to return the passport and other documents, Nepali embassies can immediately issue you a travel document to Nepal.
Upon returning, legitimate official documents are the greatest assets in the case of injuries, incapacitation or death. The Foreign Employment Promotion Board is always flooding with returnees and their relatives applying for government compensation. One of them is Deuti Maya Lama from Solukhumbu. She recently lost her husband who worked at a furniture factory in Malaysia. He died of heart attack in his sleep, unable to cope up with the increasing workload and drastic climatic change.
“I hope I’ll get the compensation soon. I need the money to raise my daughter and educate her,” she says, her eyes filling with tears as she waits for the bureaucratic formalities to be over.
The government, however, has its own set of rules regarding the compensation scheme. The money is granted only to those who have migrated with a government issued labor permit and have not overstayed the time period allotted by their visas and contracts. The amount of compensation may range from Rs 150,000 in case of death to a few thousand Rupees as medical expenses.
Tika Prasad Bhandari, Director of the Foreign Employment Promotion Board, presents a progress report on the ongoing fiscal year which shows that a grand total of 476 people have received compensation for death, illness and incapacitation until the end of Poush. Similarly, the same report says that the office has aided in having 204 dead bodies brought from foreign countries and handing them over to their respective families in various districts of Nepal.
The challenges and tragedies do not just end at this point. The prospects remain bleak for all those who return home with bitter experiences, empty pockets and shattered hopes. Particularly for women, if they are with unwanted children, it is quite difficult to get accepted and reintegrated in the society, psychologically and economically.
Sumitra Shrestha, psychosocial counselor and shelter in charge at Maiti Nepal, feels that reuniting the returnees with their families can be the first step towards their social and psychological reintegration.
“Making them economically sound by equipping them with income generating skills is as important as social acceptance, love, support and respect,” she says.
Indeed, migration for employment comes with its fair share of pros and cons. The best solution to the problem is to create more employment opportunities within the country itself. However, in the current context where the country’s economy depends so much on remittance, it is necessary to raise awareness about the procedures and prospects of foreign employment.
Similarly, it is also important to equip the migrants with the necessary skills and techniques before they take up foreign job offers. When the people are made aware about the opportunities as well as the challenges, there would be far less tragedies and we would not have to witness our country people returning home, abused, ill, injured, incapacitated or worse, dead.
For the migrants, by the migrants
In the current scenario where thousands of Nepali youth have long been migrating to the Gulf countries in search of greener pastures, the question remains regarding their basic human rights and physical, emotional and financial security.
Som Prasad Lamichhane, General Secretary of Pravasi Nepali Coordination Committee (PNCC), is a returnee himself who has lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for several years. Currently, he is working for the benefits of migrant workers in Nepal.
The Week’s Nitya Pandey caught up with Lamichhane on the issues of labor rights, the government’s compensation scheme and the social, psychological and financial reintegration of those that have returned.
How did you get to Saudi Arabia?
Back in 2003, many young people from my village in Tanahun were migrating to the Gulf countries for employment. I had just finished my Intermediate level. So I decided to follow suit with the help of a local broker. I gave up my job in Pokhara when he promised me an assistant accountant’s job in Dubai. He took me to India where I stayed for three months with 14 other men in the same room. As days went by, my frustration and agitation increased. I couldn’t go home empty-handed and the hopes of getting the job that was promised me by the broker got slimmer. Finally, I got the job of a computer operator in Saudi Arabia for Rs 12,000 per month. And I had no option but to go for it.
Why did you return to Nepal only to go back again?
In the Gulf, you can’t switch companies unless the company you’re working in shuts down or grants you a transfer elsewhere. I had secretly started applying for other jobs while I was working as a computer operator. So when I got a better opportunity, I decided to leave my ongoing job and return to Nepal. This time around, I had a fair idea about how things worked. So I followed all the legal procedures, returned to Saudi Arabia and joined my new job as a fresh migrant. I was in there for five years and my salary was Rs 32,000 per month.
How aware are the people regarding the challenges, opportunities and legal procedures of foreign employment?
In the urban areas, people know about legal procedures, employment opportunities and compensations. They travel to foreign countries through registered manpower companies. But in rural areas, most people are uneducated and unskilled. So they hand over their fate and fortune to local brokers who may not always have the best intentions. As a result, they either get cheated or are forced to suffer in a strange land and return home empty-handed, or worse, ill and incapacitated.
What’s the situation of women like?
The situation of Nepali women who migrate to foreign countries as domestic help is absolutely pathetic. They are usually smuggled through India and have little or no idea about what awaits them ahead. Although our law clearly states that women under 30 years of age aren’t allowed to be employed as domestic workers, their brokers transport them through fake passports. And once they reach the Gulf countries, they are put on a 24-hour duty. The worst thing is that the state’s laws don’t recognize them as workers, and even if they are abused, raped, killed or underpaid, there’s no mechanism to punish the culprits. Moreover, they are confined inside the four walls of their employers’ houses and have a slim chance of getting out in search of embassies that can rescue them.
Is Korea any different?
It’s a different case because we have a government-to-government agreement with South Korea. Those people who are interested to go there learn the language and technical skills first. Based on the marks obtained in the language aptitude tests, the applicants are allotted duties on agricultural farms and machine-based factories. Also, in Korea, you can change up to three different companies if you aren’t satisfied with the system or salary in the previous place.
What do you suggest to those who wish to go abroad?
I request them to keep their eyes and ears open. They should only travel through trusted channels and fulfill all the legal procedures. They should choose a registered manpower company and always take receipts whenever they make any kind of payment. They should understand that as long as they have the labor permit issued by the government and are on written contract with the company employing them, they even get compensation if they are hurt physically or mentally. Most importantly, one should develop the required technical skills and at least have a basic idea about the language, culture and climate of the countries that they are traveling to.
And what are your suggestions for the government?
We lack technical skills and correct information. The government should establish information centers in all districts so that innocent people don’t get misled. It should also organize trainings and skill development opportunities for those who plan to go abroad. The government should monitor the borders and airports as well as formulate strict laws and regulations regarding fake manpower agencies. And the biggest challenge that we need to overcome today is that of social, economic and psychological reintegration of the returnees. The government should focus on that aspect as well.