FEB 26 - The campaign against slavery started in 1837, with the British regime announcing, through the Slavery Abolition Act, an official end to slavery within the empire, except for a few Indian native states. Slavery was abolished in the USA at the end of its civil war of 1865. Brazil followed shortly, as did most other countries. In Nepal, during the Rana regime, Chandra Shamsher declared an end to slavery by providing relief to bonded labourers (kamaras). This official end was
institutionalised after the first and second People’s Movements that abolished the kamaiya and haliya systems, respectively. However, despite official decrees, slavery is alive and thriving, not only in Nepal but throughout the world in different forms and under different names.
One such form of modern day slavery exists as the kafala system in Gulf countries. Both employers in the Gulf, as well as the authorities of the countries of origin, are party to the continuation and sustainability of this modern form of bonded labour. Under this practice, workers from foreign countries enter Gulf countries for work under a sponsorship system referred to as kafala. Upon receiving a contract to work in the Gulf, these modern bonded labourers have no option but to abide by the rules and conditions forced upon them by their employers. For a conflict-affected country like Nepal, these effective ‘slaves’ are now the main earners of foreign currency. They are also a prime source of the cheapest means of production in the labour deficit countries of the Middle East. It is clear that both the employers and the country of origin benefit from the kafala system but do these workers benefit at all?
In a recent visit to Doha and Beirut, I witnessed how many Nepalis are forced to live under slavery-like conditions by our own state. Although it was almost impossible to meet any woman who worked as domestic help in Doha (referred to as maids by our country and by the destination countries), as its laws do not allow a breach of the privacy of households. However, I did hear frightening stories of abuse and violence within these private homes guarded by 18ft walls. This system allows the ‘sponsors’ to dictate the lives of the migrant workers, who are completely at the mercy of their employers. If any female worker tries to leave the fortress within which she is confined or even disobeys the rules, she can be immediately labelled as ‘illegal’ and imprisoned, or even tortured.
As a Nepali, it was shocking and painful for me to learn that if these Nepali female workers manage to be released from incarceration via deportation from the destination countries, they once again are put into a detention centre in Kathmandu, which is run by the immigration department. Even when they return ‘home,’ they are treated like criminals simply because they did not leave Nepal with the correct travel documents. The recent case of Sita Rai is an example of the abuse and violence awaiting Nepali migrant women within their own country at the hands of their very own police and government officers. Another distressing fact is that if any of these women manage to escape and encounter their countrymen claiming to be their rescuers, they are not safe either. Several of these self-proclaimed saviours become agents of exploitation and abuse, taking advantage of the vulnerability of these women. At all levels and by all actors, Nepali migrant women, who are simply trying to make better lives for themselves and their families, face abuse and exploitation.
Eager to get a response from the Nepal government on this situation, I met with the Nepali ambassador in Doha. I was hoping to get information on the available support mechanisms for Nepali migrant workers in Qatar. It came as a big surprise when I learned that the ambassador himself was the proud architect of the legislation that imposes a ban on women under the age of 30 from travelling to the Middle East for domestic work. Our enterprising ambassador, who graduated from a section officer to an Agricultural Bank official to a diplomat with the blessing of a political party, had the power to decide that only women above 30 years of age will prove to be more tolerant of abuse while still doing back-breaking works.
However, I managed to meet with some women working with cleaning agencies in Doha and it was gratifying to see that they had managed to establish themselves as independent economic agents despite all odds; and the number of these empowered migrant women was not insignificant. Their experiences made it clear that providing information and skills to all migrating workers is a pressing necessity. Furthermore, it is equally important to provide information about what awaits them in destination countries, including the type of work, to facilitate their integration. Most importantly, these migrating workers require information on the support systems available in case they encounter problems in foreign countries.
My next destination was Beirut where 12,000 Nepali women are employed as domestic workers in the homes of the Lebanese. Upon arrival, we met a Nepali man who told me that he had been declared illegal the moment he landed on the airport in 1998. Subsequently, he was forced to live for several days on the streets without food or drink. To my surprise, the next day, this very man introduced me to a so-called Nepali businessman whose agency was responsible for bringing him to Beirut illegally. This man also introduced us to a few women who congregated in Dari (the meeting place of Nepali migrants in Beirut). In a small teashop in Dari, more women started to drop in. We could see women were taking life decisions independently. However, it was painful to see how different agencies were trying to control them and divest them of their hard-earned money. The absence of any kind of support and follow-up mechanisms from the government was enabling different agencies to exploit these women’s vulnerability and insecurity. It was disturbing to see just how men from different countries were treating these women in Dari but, at the same time, encouraging to see the women’s self-assured responses.
Several women shared their stories with us. They spoke of their relief in finally being allowed time off by their ‘madams’ to take a break on Sundays, of receiving $125-250 a month as salary more or less regularly and the possibility of occasionally cooking dal bhat. Amidst the diversity of the stories shared, one common theme they kept repeating was that if they had found decent jobs in Nepal and were treated equally at home and outside, they would never have landed up in a foreign country. Accor-ding to them, not all women workers enjoy the freedom to come out on Sundays. Many women live their lives within closed doors day in, day out, many with bruises on their bodies. Some even get murdered but these killings are marked as suicides by forensic doctors. Who will investigate these crimes in a foreign land committed against women who are considered disposable?
This revelation made me reflect on the similarities between the so-called ‘suicide’ case of Saraswoti Subedi and the Lebanese case involving the ‘suicide’ of a Nepali female worker at the home of her employer. The same nightmare is occurring in two different continents, where female migrants killed by their employers and the murders are passed off as suicides. The case of Sita Rai, who was raped in Kathmandu by a police officer, is also not very different from the case of Nepali migrant women routinely looted and exploited by foreign employers or pimps. How are government officers, who remain unpunished for the crimes they commit and are protected by their bosses, any different from the employers, pimps and brokers who attack Nepali female workers with impunity? It is high time the government responded to the situation, rather than sweeping these issues under the rug by establishing toothless committees that only perpetuate impunity.
Rajbhandari is a women rights activist
Published 26 February. The Kathmandu Post.