South Asia

Why Nepal Sends So Many Migrant Workers to the Middle East

Despite the potential for abuse and exploitation, Middle Eastern countries continue to attract hundreds of thousands of Nepali migrant workers every year.

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Kumar Thapa, a 41-year-old migrant worker, returned to Nepal in 2018 after labouring for nine years in the Middle East.

Working for a construction company in Saudi Arabia, he used to save enough to send the equivalent of about €100 ($98) to his family back home. The money was spent on his children’s education as well as on building a small house in their hometown in Sindhupalchowk district.

All in all, Thapa’s family was able to afford a comfortable life with the income he earned in the Middle East.

But his story is more of an exception than a rule.

Many Nepalis who move to the region in search of work encounter widespread abuse and exploitation.

Some even end up losing their lives.

At least 7,467 migrant workers have died abroad since 2008, according to figures from the government’s Labor Migration Report, with 750 of those deaths reported between 2018 and 2019.

These figures exclude workers who migrate through unauthorised channels as well as labourers who work in India.

‘Kafala system’ ensures widespread abuse

Recruitment agencies often deploy intermediaries to find potential migrant workers. They regularly use deception or coercion to hire workers and promise them lucrative jobs.

While host countries usually require employers to pay recruitment fees, they often pass on the costs to workers, who take out loans to pay back the costs.

The workers then face a heavy debt burden amounting to thousands of euros even before they leave their country of origin.

From the time they land in their host country, they are subject to stringent restrictions on their movement and freedoms, as part of the “Kafala” — or sponsorship — system, which gives employers total control over migrant workers’ employment and immigration status.

The system is in force in all Arab Gulf countries, except Iraq, as well as in Jordan and Lebanon.

Employers regularly seize workers’ passports, visas and phones, and sometimes also reduce or withhold their wages. While domestic workers are confined to their homes, labourers toiling at construction and industrial sites are relegated to tiny and overcrowded dorms.

Gender-based discrimination is rampant with many female domestic workers experiencing abuse, including sexual violence.

A migrant worker in Qatar. Photo: ILO/Flickr CC BY NC ND 2.0

Nepal’s economy relies on remittances

Despite the risks and potential for exploitation, Middle Eastern countries continue to attract hundreds of thousands of Nepali migrant labour every year. Last year alone, over 620,000 Nepali workers moved to the region.

That’s because these jobs often offer higher pay than jobs in Nepal.

Many workers then send remittances home, which now account for as much as 25% of the nation’s total economic output. Nepal is currently the fifth most remittance-dependent economy in the world.

The remittances have lifted a significant number of households out of poverty.

This influx of outside cash has been keeping the economy afloat for a long time now, despite the country suffering bouts of political instability over the past decade.

The high reliance on remittances means that the government has been wary of taking measures that could hurt migration to these countries, and, in turn, the flow of cash into Nepal.

Recruitment agencies also lobby the Nepali government to ensure their activities aren’t restricted.

“The Foreign Employment Act states that the recruiters’ businesses are protected. Those companies don’t care whether workers’ rights are respected or not, or when workers are offered different, low-paying jobs than what was mentioned in their contracts,” Kul Prasad Karki, chairperson of Pravasi Nepali Coordination Committee (PNCC), an NGO working for the rights of migrant workers, told DW.

Workers’ rights in the spotlight

The issue of migrant worker abuses has been back in international focus as Qatar prepares to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup this month.

Reports suggest that many of the thousands of workers who toiled under scorching conditions to build the infrastructure needed for the tournament — including stadiums, roads and hotels — have suffered from heat-related deaths and injuries.

Nepali workers have formed a sizable contingent of the workforce employed in Qatar.

Of the nearly 2.7 million people living in the Gulf country, Nepalis account for about 432,000 – or 16% of the total population, according to UN data from July 2022. Most of them are employed at construction sites.

Amid growing global scrutiny, some Gulf countries have started implementing limited reforms to the system, like allowing workers to transfer jobs after a certain period and easing restrictions on returning to their home country.

Still, workers and rights groups say many who want to change jobs face threats from employers and bureaucratic delays, and the measures do little to protect domestic workers.

FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Preview – Doha, Qatar – October 23, 2022 General view of a World Cup sign at Doha Corniche. Photo: Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed

A huge human cost

For Nepal, the massive outward migration and the remittance-reliant economy — notwithstanding their socioeconomic benefits — have come with a huge human cost, with concerns that the system is disrupting the nation’s social fabric.

With many husbands working abroad for long periods of time, the divorce rate has gone up.

It has also accelerated a shift from traditional joint families toward nuclear families, resulting in many of the elderly, particularly in rural areas, being left without any caregivers.

Migration is a natural process and it is a choice,” said Manju Gurung, co-founder of POURAKHI Nepal, an organization working for the betterment of migrant workers. “But everyone should be informed about what it brings to an individual’s life.”

This article was first published on DW.