This February, 51-year-old Bhim Upadhyaya (name changed), a farmer from the Chitwan district in Nepal, paid a Kathmandu-based recruitment agency for a job as a truck driver in Doha, Qatar. The sum – 105,000 Nepalese rupees ($930) – was borrowed from a money-lender at a 60% annual interest rate.
Bhim’s contract – written in English, a language he does not read – promised an 1,800 rial ($495) monthly salary, plus overtime if he worked longer than eight hours. When Bhim signed the offer, the agency issued him a receipt for a fraction of what he had paid them.
“I knew the recruitment agency would only issue a receipt for 10,000 rupees – other workers had told me about this practice,” Bhim said. Following a Nepal government directive on recruitment fees, agencies in Nepal issue false receipts for sums within the maximum permitted limit – and then tell workers to not reveal what they actually paid.
Hours after Bhim’s plane landed in Doha, he was given a new employment contract. He would be paid 900 rials – half the amount promised in Nepal – for a different job, as a porter for a construction company.
Unable to support his family or pay his debts, Bhim returned home in one month. His family is poorer now than they were before he migrated to Doha. Without other job opportunities in Chitwan, Bhim is looking to migrate to the Gulf a second time.
Remittance earnings ensure economic prosperity. Young women and men in the Gulf who hold jobs as labourers, domestic workers, cleaners and security guards save up to renovate their homes, send their children to school and buy them toys and books. They purchase motorbikes, television sets and mobile phones. But recruitment charges – for their placement, selection and foreign travel – erode this progress.
The International Labour Organization says that South Asian workers have paid recruiters billions of dollars in excess of the real costs of recruitment.
South Asia received over $131 billion as remittances in 2018 – more than any other region in the world, and nearly twice the inflows to China. A significant portion of the region’s remittances, over $16 billion, is from small savings made by thousands of low-paid migrant workers in the Gulf.
Recruitment charges comprise two parts. First, a number of true costs including visa processing fees, air tickets, passport, insurance, medical fees and other administrative charges. The second part consists of service fees and undefined expenses: commissions, bribes and so on.
Recruiters in India and Bangladesh estimate that the true costs of recruiting workers in the country of origin (excluding air tickets) is $400-$650 (avgerage $525). Yet workers make much larger payouts, representing many months of future earnings; some have been known to pay upto $10,000 in recruitment fees.
Companies, especially in the construction sector, engage in competitive bidding for projects. Because tenders are often awarded to the lowest bidder, businesses in the Gulf routinely underestimate or omit key operational costs – including recruitment-related expenses – by transferring them to recruiters and potential migrants.
Labour laws in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain prohibit employers from transferring recruitment costs. Yet these are easily shifted because thousands of agencies are willing to recruit without charge, or even pay for recruitment contracts.
Ray Jureidini, a scholar on migration and labour at the Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar, told The Wire that recruiters might also offer “incentives” to company personnel and recruitment agencies in the Gulf.
“Company personnel who go to countries to do the skills-testing of potential workers may be paid for by the agencies,” Jureidini said, noting that the specific costs might differ. “It can include hotel bills, food and entertainment that can also include money for gambling and ‘personal’ services.”
“Sometimes the company personnel might ask the agent for the receipts – of legitimate expenses – to claim them from their company when they go back.”
Eventually, all recruitment charges – true costs, kickback payments and service charges – are built into the final recruitment fee charged to workers.
The ILO broadly estimates that each Asian worker in the Gulf is likely to have paid on average $1,000 more than the true recruitment costs, which workers should not be paying for anyway.
“If there are 15 million low-skilled South Asian workers in the Gulf and if employer personnel are paid on average $1,000 for each worker recruited, that’s $15 billion in fraudulent kickback bribes, charged to workers who have no idea what they are paying for,” Jureidini said.
High recruitment charges force migrant workers to sell tools, land and livestock and borrow heavily from banks and money lenders. According to the World Bank, poor workers pay progressively larger recruitment fees, and workers who make large payouts are more likely to be deceived about future jobs.
In the worst cases, migrants find themselves in debt bondage – trapped into working for little or no pay until the debt is repaid.
In April 2018, Yasmeen Amir Basha, a 25-year-old mother of four from Tamil Nadu, migrated to work as a maid for a Kuwaiti family. In India, she had been offered a monthly salary of Rs 27,000 ($380), free accommodation and food by a job broker, acting on behalf of an agency in Kuwait.
A few months into her job, her employer began forcing Yasmeen to work for more than 20 hours a day. When she complained, her employer would hit her. After weeks of physical abuse, Yasmeen sent pictures of her bruises and cuts to her husband over Whatsapp.
Yasmeen’s husband, Amir Basha, reached out to the recruitment agency in Kuwait. “If only she works hard, she can make money!” the representative told him. “If she can’t work here, she can be pushed into the sex trade.”
When her husband pleaded that he wanted Yasmeen to return to India, the agency gave them a way out. “Pay us Rs 180,000 for the failed contract or ask Yasmeen to complete her side of the agreement,” the representative allegedly said.
“We paid the broker on condition that Yasmeen would work for at least two years with the sponsor.”
Josephine Valarmathi, a migrant rights activist in Chennai, Tamil Nadu told The Wire she has encountered many domestic workers, like Yasmeen, forced to pay their way out of exploitative situations. “The reason they are in this exploitative situation is because of the recruiter,” Valarmathi said, “Now they are forced to borrow further, and fall deeper in debt.”
Much of the reform needs to take place in the Gulf. Labour laws that explicitly prohibit worker-paid fees have to be enforced, and greater diligence is needed – including government audits of recruitment agencies and companies to ensure they are not selling visas on the black market. Labour inspectors should identify and punish abusive employers of domestic workers, who receive fewer protections than those accorded to other workers under national labour laws.
At present, South Asian countries have statutory limits on the amount migrant workers may be charged in recruitment fees. They range from 10,000 rupees ($90) in Nepal to 80,000 taka ($950) in Bangladesh. These limits are poorly enforced. Governments are concerned that stronger oversight, or bans on these fees, could result in employers moving recruitment across the border.
To address this, South Asian countries could pass laws and set up common minimum standards for labour recruitment from the region – followed by better regulation of agencies, and steps to punish fraudulent recruiters and give workers access to an effective complaints mechanism.
In 2016, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) pledged to develop strategies to protect migrant worker rights, including the drafting of a minimum standards for salaries and facilities for their nationals. Three years later, there has been no progress on these measures.
As poor South Asian workers line up for jobs outside recruitment agencies, the likely criteria for their selection in 2019 and beyond remains how much they are willing to pay for them.
Nikhil Eapen is an independent journalist based in Bangalore.