Binod Ghimire and Arjun Poudel
On May 18, 2020, Bine Bahadur BK rang up his family from Qatar to apprise them of his work and other issues. It was the time of the pandemic. He told his family that he was doing fine but was worried about rising Covid-19 cases.
A permanent resident of Ram Bazar in Pokhara, BK had gone to Qatar as a migrant worker two decades ago and was working in a construction company.
Two days after he called from the Gulf country, the family members received a call that left them in a state of shock. They were told BK had committed suicide.
“I did not believe my father had committed suicide. I still don’t believe it,” Raj, the eldest son of BK, told the Post over the phone from Pokhara. “There must be some other reasons for his death.”
The BK family made attempts to bring his body back home but couldn’t, owing to the pandemic. Officials from the company said it could take years to repatriate the body and suggested that cremating in Qatar would be better.
“We were not even given a photograph. We were left with no option than to accept what we were told,” said Raj. “We were helpless.”
The number of Nepali workers travelling to different labour destinations is increasing over the years. The remittance they send keeps the country’s economy afloat, but little attention has been paid for their protection in foreign lands, where they are exposed to health hazards and other risks, often fatal. On most occasions, the reasons for the deaths are suspicious like in the case of BK.
A recent report “Vital Signs: Deaths of Migrants in the Gulf”, made public on March 10, states that as many as 10,000 migrant workers from South and Southeast Asia lose their lives in six countries in the Gulf every year. Around half of migrant worker deaths are not explained, which is to say that deaths are certified without any reference to an underlying cause of death, according to the report.
“Low paid migrant workers in the Gulf are subjected to a range of risks to their health that place their lives in jeopardy. Working and living conditions, psychosocial stress and lack of access to health care are among the reasons for the rising deaths,” reads the report. The report that has analysed the numbers and causes of deaths of the migrant workers in the destination countries claims that the reasons of the death is not transparent while many of those deaths could have been avoidable.
The migrant worker deaths have been classified broadly into seven categories— cardiac arrest, heart attack, natural cause, traffic accident, suicide, workplace death and other causes. However, the researchers claim categories are not aligned with international guidance on classification.
As many as 7,296 male and 171 female migrant workers from Nepal lost their lives in a decade between fiscal year 2008-2009 and 2018-2019 and heart attack and natural causes accounted for 47 percent of the total deaths.
“There are many cases that go unreported while the causes of deaths are not transparent,” Anurag Devkota, a human rights lawyer working with Law and Policy Forum for Social Society, which was involved in the research from Nepal, told the Post. “What does natural death mean? How can the workplace be the reason for death?”
Road accidents with 20 percent of all deaths is the second highest reason for Nepali migrant workers followed by suicide (9 percent).
Devkota says while it is the responsibility of the destination countries to take measures to reduce worker deaths and investigate and certify the deaths in line with the international practice, the origin countries too have failed to take necessary steps to protect their citizens.
Responding to a petition, by a group of organisations advocating for the rights of migrant workers, the Supreme Court in November 2017 had issued a verdict that it is the right of the victim’s family to know the actual reason of the death. A division bench of justices Purusottam Bhandari and Bam Kumar Sherstha had directed the Nepal government to carry out an autopsy of the deceased and other investigations to find out the real cause of death.
“The verdict, however, remains unimplemented,” said Devkota.
The report says migrant workers in the Gulf are exposed to a series of risks to their health, including heat and humidity, air pollution, overwork and abusive working conditions, poor occupational health and safety practices, psychosocial stress and hypertension. Long hours of manual labour in searing temperatures can result in heat stress, which can lead to organ damage, according to the report.
The report concludes that the most likely reason for this high rate of unexplained deaths is that there are serious and systematic issues with the manner in which the Gulf states investigate migrant worker deaths.
Experts say that many such deaths are avoidable. However, hundreds of people are dying every year in destination countries. They say lack of access to treatment is responsible for many of the deaths.
“Many deaths are avoidable but unfortunately initiatives of the agencies concerned have not been effective at preventing them,” said Rameshwor Nepal, a labour migration researcher and South Asia director at Equidem Research, a UK-based human rights research organisation. “The country loses a citizen when someone dies and its consequences are very huge on the dependent family members.”
Reports suggest there are about 30 million migrants working in the Arab Gulf states—the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait, and 80 percent of these are employed in low-paid sectors such as construction, hospitality and domestic work. During the pre-pandemic period, these seven countries were hosting an estimated 1.27 million Nepali migrant workers.
Officials at the Ministry of Labour Employment and Social Security said they are doing everything to reduce the number of migrant worker deaths.
“Currently, the minister and the secretary of the Ministry of Labour Employment and Social Security are in the United Arab Emirates to assess the living conditions of Nepali migrant workers,” said Dandu Raj Ghimire, spokesperson for the ministry. “From our side we are doing our best to prevent migrant worker deaths. It, however, is a fact that deaths are not decreasing in significant numbers.”
The report, compiled by NGOs from Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and the Philippines, and FairSquare Projects, a London-based migrant rights organisation, shows that low-paid migrant workers in isolated and unsanitary labour camps are often working extremely long hours in dangerous conditions to service debt from recruitment fees. They often do not receive training on occupational health and safety and cannot access healthcare.
Officials argue that migrant worker deaths are associated not only with the working conditions, but also with education and skills of workers.
According to the report, low-paid migrant workers in the Gulf are subjected to a combination of risks to their physical and mental health. These risks originate from the workplace, their living conditions and the environment. They vary in seriousness, and they are to varying extents under-researched and under-reported.
“Whatever the causes are, we are losing our people in foreign countries and it is the responsibility of the authorities concerned to prevent their deaths,” said Jeevan Baniya, assistant director at the Center for Study of Labour and Mobility, Social Science Baha. “If the initiatives taken so far to lessen the deaths of migrant workers are not effective, authorities should change and improve the strategies.”
BK’s family in Pokhara, meanwhile, feels they have been denied justice.
“The state failed us. It did nothing to find out the real cause of my father’s death. I am in no position to go to Qatar and fight a legal battle. I don’t have the money or the wherewithal,” said Raj, the son. “It is the government that should be helping its citizens. My father worked for 20 years in the company but we received nothing from the company when he died.”
“What we received was just ashes,” he said.
Published on: 19 March 2022 | The Kathmandu Post