The misery of migrant workers

Sakun Gajurel

While the world enjoys the World Cup this winter, scores of migrant workers who lost their lives in Qatar in the past 10 years are coming to light. Many of those deaths remain uninvestigated as they are simply marked as “deaths due to natural causes.” Various human rights organisations have reported the deaths of as many as 6,500 migrant workers, most of whom are from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. A significant proportion of them worked on construction projects related to the World Cup 2022.

Many who survived the unfavourable working/living conditions and exploitation have suffered long-term health problems or have returned home with no safety nets. Others still working in Qatar remain silent due to the fear of retribution from their employers or worse, losing their livelihoods. Unemployment and inflation are rampant in their home countries, and migrant workers have no choice but to continue working in Qatar.

Condition of Nepali workers

Qatar has spent more than $200 billion in construction projects since it won the right to host the World Cup 2022, 12 years ago. Eight new stadiums, a new airport, hotels, railways, and highways have been constructed by the migrant workers, who account for 90 percent of the Qatari workforce, many of whom are from Nepal. Government statistics show that about 1,700 people, on average, fly out of Nepal daily, seeking employment in the Gulf nations. An estimated half a million Nepalis are working in Qatar, accounting for one-fourth of the total migrant population. Nepalis are mostly engaged in low-skill labour jobs in construction, restaurants, hotel services, cleaning, and security, as well as in more hazardous jobs such as electric pole installation and maintenance, digging, high-rise skyscraper constructions, and driving. Millions of people from all over the world who are in Qatar to see the World Cup are oblivious to the sufferings of the workers who constructed the infrastructures they are benefiting from.

We have repeatedly heard that Nepali workers pay large sums of money to manpower companies, ranging from Rs150,000 to Rs300,000, up to 10 times more than legally established rates, for visa paperwork. If all goes well, they fly to Qatar. Often, their jobs differ from what they signed up for. The workers feel they have no choice, but to gamble with their lives in Qatar as the alternative is staying in the villages and pursuing subsistence farming, an occupation that generates less profit with a limited market. They hope to save up enough to return home in a few years, but many don’t make it home alive.

Because of the government of Nepal’s inability to intervene and negotiate with the Qatari authorities for fair wages and decent working conditions, Nepali workers continue to suffer. The government should understand that it is due to the hard work of workers that foreign exchange remittances make a significant contribution to the nation’s gross domestic product. The Nepal government, therefore, should pay adequate attention to their protection.

Need for government intervention

Young people in Nepal are desperate for economic opportunities. Minor policy changes could alter the rate at which our youths emigrate, which may also better facilitate the processes for those who see no alternative but to leave the country. The government should establish financial assistance programmes to mitigate the adverse effects of unemployment among young people. Studies have shown that a little social protection in times of need could go a long way towards pulling people out of their deprivation and seeking risky alternatives. Further, investments in big agricultural projects and manufacturing sectors can boost the economy and generate the much-needed employment for the vast population of unskilled youths.

The government authorities must also monitor manpower companies to ensure transparency and fairness in visa paperwork. Due to a lack of accountability, the companies make their own rules. As a result, desperate people give in to exploitation at home, only to walk into more trouble abroad. Similarly, the Foreign Employment Board should provide language and lifestyle courses to migrant workers, including information on the legal systems of the countries the workers are going to, and acquainting them with life abroad with pre-departure orientation training. Migrant workers are unprepared for the language barriers they face in foreign countries. In the absence of legal support from the host country or their embassy, they fall into exploitation.

There is an ongoing effort from Amnesty International to get FIFA to set aside a small proportion of profit from the World Cup to directly compensate the migrant workers. But even if it is successful, it would only be a bandage on the wound, not cure. Each life lost abroad is another family in distress at home. It means a stolen childhood for many as they lose not only a parent or a sibling, but also their family's sole breadwinner.

Therefore, a long-term policy change is the need of the hour. It is high time the Nepal government and international bodies revisited the migrant workers' terms and conditions with Qatar and the larger Gulf nations to ensure the dignity of Nepali workers in foreign lands. Whether it is the laissez-faire nature that our leaders adopt or diplomatic reasons, we are losing migrant workers at an alarming rate, which should be a matter of concern for all Nepalis.

Published on: 5 December 2022 | The Kathmandu Post



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