Jobless and without pay, migrant workers are returning home. But they have no recourse for compensation

Chandan Kumar Mandal

In January, when Kalim Miya migrated to Sharjah, the third-largest city in the United Arab of Emirates, he paid nearly 35 times more than the price ceiling set by the government to go overseas for employment.
For a taxi driver’s job, Miya from Laxmi Bazar, Gorkha, had paid Rs345,000 to a Kathmandu-based recruitment agency.

When Miya returned home on June 22 in an evacuation flight, he had no money on him. “I did not get even one-month’s salary during my time in Sharjah,” Miya told the Post.

After returning home, Miya has been staying in a quarantine facility at Shree Manakamana Deaf Residential Secondary School in Gorkha Municipality-9.

“I had taken some money with myself when I left for Sharjah. Once I reached there, I had to keep asking for money from my family to survive,” Miya said.

Thirty-year-old Miya was evacuated along with 14 of his friends from Sharjah. All of them had worked for Emirates Cab, a taxi service provider, and they were not paid during their stint in Sharjah.

As the coronavirus pandemic reached the shores of Sharjah, they were put out of their jobs. Unpaid and without jobs, they scrambled for food and shelter for months. There were times when they slept in public parks at night and frequented the Nepal embassy during the day to ask for help but without avail.

After languishing in a foreign country for months, they were finally evacuated. Their air fares were paid by the recruiting agency in Kathmandu.
“I am home all right but I don’t know how I am going to pay off my loans. I had thought I would clear my loans with my earnings in the UAE, but I ended racking up loans instead,” said Miya. “I have no hope that I will be compensated for my loss. I had invested a lot of money to go abroad. Now here I am, without a single rupee.”

When Miya and his friends boarded their return flight, no one asked them if they had been paid by their company. Once they landed in Nepal, they were asked to fill forms detailing their health and their personal information and taken to quarantine.

“No one inquired about our salaries and facilities,” Miya said.

Miya and his friends are among the cohort of thousands of migrant workers who are returning home after losing their jobs and without being paid from the Covid-19 hit labour destination countries.

While the government’s evacuation plan has prioritised bringing back those workers who have been languishing in labour hosting countries without jobs and pay, there is no guarantee of them ever being compensated for their losses.

Labour migration experts have been expressing concern about the migrant workers returning home without pay and without prospect of ever recovering their pay.

Jeevan Baniya, a labour migration expert, said following the Covid-19 pandemic, cases of workers getting their contracts terminated, employers not paying their workers companies getting shut have become widespread in labour destination countries.

“Such a situation has not only left workers without their salaries but also their provident funds and other gratuities,” said Baniya, also the assistant director of Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility (CESLAM) at Social Science Baha, a non-governmental think tank. “As thousands of affected workers have already returned facing hardship and many more in the process of returning, compensating them is going to be a lasting issue.”

According to Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre (CCMC), the authority currently overseeing repatriation, a total of 15,052 Nepalis, which mostly include migrant workers from the Persian Gulf countries and Malaysia, have returned home as of Wednesday.

According to the Pravasi Nepali Coordination Committee (PNCC), a non-governmental organisation working for the welfare of migrant workers, 22 percent of the workers, who had contacted the organisation to seek help to return home, complained about arbitrary contract breach, unpaid salaries, bonus and other company facilities.

“Even before the pandemic, Nepali migrant workers had been facing the problem of unpaid wages and unexplained termination from their job,” said Kul Prasad Karki, PNCC chairperson. “The pandemic has only made their situation worse. First, their companies robbed them of their pays, and after that, they were forced to pay for their repatriation, hotel quarantine and Covid-19 screening.”

Despite all of these, there has been no assurance whatsoever from the government regarding compensating these workers who have the legal right to claim their unpaid salaries, Kari said.

“The government has not come up with any roadmap to ensure the workers that they will get their money back, nor offered them any legal recourse to claim their salaries,” said Karki.

Baniya, the assistant director of Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility, said the prospect of providing compensation to the migrant workers will begin only with a robust documentation of the returning workers by Nepali missions in the concerned labour destination countries and the government agencies in Nepal.

“Nepali missions, on behalf of Nepali workers or even workers, can file a complaint against employers demanding unpaid remuneration at the local court. The Nepal government itself can also fight a case,” said Baniya. “But for that to happen, we need proper documentation which can serve as evidence to seek legal remedies for workers.”

Labour migration experts say it is the responsibility of the state and the recruiting agencies to ensure compensation for the returning workers. By not keeping the record of the workers and their grievances, they say the government is only weakening their case.

So far, the Nepali embassies in labour destination countries have only been collecting the details of workers who wish to return home through online applications.

“Nepali missions abroad are not resourceful enough to handle repatriation and the grievances handling at this time. But someone has to do this, whether in labour destination countries or here in Nepal,” said Baniya. “The pandemic should not be an excuse for employers and recruitment companies to exploit workers and their human rights.”

According to the Foreign Employment Act, if any employer does not provide employment as per the terms prescribed in the agreement, the worker or his or her agent may file a complaint at the Department of Foreign Employment, along with evidence for compensation. Upon inquiry, the department can ask the recruiting agencies to provide compensation for all expenses incurred by the worker while applying for foreign employment.

There are cases of employers paying their workers following formal complaints. As many as 34 Nepali workers who had returned empty-handed from Qatar three years ago. They were provided with their unpaid salaries in February. The workers were employed by Mercury MENA, a company building stadium for Qatar World Cup in 2022.

Labour migration experts say the Nepal government first needs to acknowledge the problem of migrant workers in order to address their grievances.

“The Labour Ministry can advise the CCMC also to record the grievances of returnee workers. The records can be used for claiming compensation. International labour laws guarantee that workers should be paid even during crises,” said Baniya. “Later, we can use diplomatic negotiations to get our workers’ rights ensured. We can also internationalise the issue of migrant workers’ rights and gain access to justice by building pressure through the Colombo Process, a forum of labour sending countries, as well as other migrant rights conventions. It can set a precedent for the future.”

As for now, Miya, who is observing staying quarantine in his village, plans to file a complaint against the recruiting agency to seek compensation.

“Once I can travel to Kathmandu, I will file a complaint at the Department of Foreign Employment,” said Miya. “I have little hope of recovering my salaries. But Nepali embassies should not issue labour demands for such companies that cheat poor workers like me.”

Published on: 4 July 2020 | The Kathmandu Post

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