A version of this article originally appeared in the Nepali Times with the same title "High risk and no return"
Nepal, once known for sending brave Gurkha soldiers in the British Army, is now known for sending low paid migrant workers in the Gulf region to perform one of the most “difficult, dangerous, and dirty” jobs there.
The British East India Company enlisted Nepalis in British and Indian Army and called them ‘Gurkhas’. Gurkha soldiers were loyal, obedient, hard working, and honest. The British Army often deployed them as the first line of defense and Gurkhas obliged. Although Gurkhas were the first to face enemy’s vengeance and fought wars for a colonial empire, they did so because it paid well. Gurkhas usually belonged to poor households (which is common in Nepal) and happily remitted their generous salary back to their family members in Nepal. Since they were able to uplift their living standards relatively quickly, a father would happily marry off his daughter(s) to such Gurkha soldiers, locally known as “Lahures”.
When Dr. Surya Nath Mishra, the former ambassador of Nepal to the state of Qatar (2007-12) met with Qatari officials, they often praised Nepali workers and said, “We like workers from Nepal because they are hardworking, loyal, honest, and easy to control. Qatar needs more workers like them”.
Dr. Mishra worked really hard to improve the low pay and miserable working conditions of Nepali migrant workers in Qatar. During his four-year term, he was able to increase wages for unskilled labors from 400 riyals to 600 and again 600 to 800. Despite two wage hikes, which were vehemently opposed by manpower agencies in Nepal, it was still lower than 850, 900, 1000, and 1400 Riyals earned by workers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, and Philippines respectively for performing the same type of work. In the famous book, “Animal Farm”, George Orwell wrote, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” This statement rings true when it comes to migrant workers in the Gulf region. Dr. Mishra explains,
“The salaries of migrants workers of different nationalities are different there. It is because the Qatari economy is liberal [and] open. The government of Qatar does not fix the minimum salary of migrant workers.”
He further said, “It is the sending countries which fix the minimum salary of their workers. The government of Nepal fixed the minimum salary of Nepali workers migrating for foreign employment in 2000, amounting to 400 Riyals, equivalent to $125. And our government did not revise it until 2007.”
At the core, both Gurkhas and migrant workers have the same desire: to uplift one’s family from poverty and give them a better life. Gurkhas get recognition for their service, potentially residency rights in Britain, and a generous pension when they retire. In contrast, migrant workers receive very little pay, no respect or residency rights, and no pay after termination. Gurkhas take a low risk, high return route to living a comfortable life. Meanwhile, migrant workers are limited to taking a high risk, low return approach. If they are unlucky, and there are hundreds of them every year, they meet an untimely death commonly due to heart failure, “natural cause”, traffic accident, suicide, and unsafe working conditions.
If they get unlucky, the route taken by migrant workers turns from a high risk, low return into a high risk and no return.
Since young males between the age of 15 and 44 account for 84% of all Nepali migrant workers, it should be surprising that males younger than 44 are dying due to heart failure, traffic accident, and “natural causes”. To learn more about these causes, read the excellent article by Associated Press, titled “At rising rate, Nepalis working abroad go home in coffins“.
Tales of Tragedy: Living as a Widow
Halima Khatun lives in Harsar village, about 20 kilometers north of Janakpur in Dhanusa district. She has two humble mud huts, one for her buffalo and the other for herself. When I met her on a bright sunny afternoon in December, she was busy washing dishes on the street outside her home.
“My name is Halima Khatun. My husband used to work abroad. While working abroad, an incident happened two and a half years ago,” she said. During that time, her husband, Mr. Bhoril Kawari, was working at Al Banai Trading & Contracting Co. in Doha, Qatar.
Halima said further, “In Qatar, he was returning [home] after evening prayers (Namaz). He had gone to meet his friends and had borrowed some money from them to send it to me. We had an outstanding loan of about Rs. 1.5 lakhs here. As he was returning to his room after meeting his friends, a jeep struck him. It was really close to his house. It happened around 5 pm in the evening there.” Unfortunately, he did not survive the fatal accident. The official cause of death was “Traumatic Blunt Head Injury And Associated Complications”.
On February 05, 2010, her world turned upside down. She became a widow and had the sole responsibility to raise their young children, a daughter and a son.
Halima cannot read or write because she never received formal education. So, she depended on her husband for a living. In addition, Mr. Kawari had borrowed Rs. 300,000 from local moneylenders to pay for his visa, airfare, and recruiting agency. Now, she was responsible to pay it off on her own.
The state of Qatar made a blood money payment of Rs. 32 lakh (US $32,000) to the deceased’s family, out of which Halima received only Rs. 22 lakh 40 thousand (US $22,400). When I asked her who embezzled the remaining funds, she replied, “Who knows who did it? Perhaps the government knows, it could be the employees or someone else. I don’t know. ”
One of the local agents offered to help her collect the life insurance compensation from the government of Nepal and accompanied Halima from her village to Kathmandu. After reaching there, he prevented her from appearing in person at Babar Mahal and instead got her signatures on all required documents. She said, “I was summoned at Babar Mahal in Kathmandu. But I was not allowed to go. The radio announcement there called for Halima Khatun. But I was not allowed to go there. They got my signature on all documents. I am naive and did not know any better.”
She was distressed, illiterate, and naive to believe the agent who was ostensibly helping her. She said, “He did not let me go but I did not understand it. If I had been educated, I may have understood. But I am uneducated so, I just believed whatever he told me. They asked me to wait at a shop while they went with all the documents that had my signatures. I just waited at the shop. After they returned, they told me this is the amount for you. Everyone knew that the life insurance compensation is Rs. 6 lakhs. But I was given only Rs. 15,000. Not a rupee more in Kathmandu.”
Of the Rs. 600,000 (6 lakh) that the Government of Nepal provides to deceased’s family, Halima received a meager Rs. 15,000. The remaining was embezzled by agents of the recruiting agency who took advantage of her illiteracy. She does not remember the names of the agents or the recruiting agency. During my investigation of her documents, I could not find any reference to any recruiting agency collecting funds on her behalf either.
She used the amount received to pay off her debt, marry her daughter, and buy five katthas (0.42 acres) of land. Now, she earns a living for herself and her son by farming on that little land. In her spare time, she prepares dung cakes, locally known as “goitha” to use as biomass fuel for cooking.
When I asked Halima if she has tried to investigate about the embezzled insurance funds, she replied,
“Who would help me? I have no one.”
The death of Halima’s husband in 2010 in Qatar was not an isolated incident. 123 Nepali workers died in 2009/10 and 133 in 2010/11 in Qatar. And that continued to increase each year with 179, 206, and 211 deaths in 2011/12, 2012/13, and 2013/14 respectively. Halima is just one of the many widows who are the real victims of poverty, illiteracy, and high unemployment in Nepal.
I traveled to Nepal and United Arab Emirates (UAE) in December 2016 for documenting the stories of Nepali labor migrants.
This work is part of a student media grant by the Center on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University. I would like to thank The Center on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University (ConDev, condev.org) for its funding and support. ConDev seeks to improve the effectiveness of development programs and policies for conflict-affected and fragile countries through multidisciplinary research, education and development extension.
I would also like to sincerely thank Jeet Kumar Sah, a volunteer at Madhesh Relief Fund (MRF) and Er. Krishna Chandra Sah, the coordinator at MRF for extending their support during my field trip to Harsar village.
To read more: see The Confict and Development Center at Texas A&M University.
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