Him Kumari Yongan’s eyes fill suddenly with tears. “He never complained,” the 25-year-old says. “At times he just said that the work was very hard.” She tries to keep her composure, gently caressing her three-year-old son as she talks about the father he will never see again. “I don’t know what to do now. I am alone.”
A few weeks ago, a formal phone call from the company her husband was working for in Qatar announced his death. According to his co-workers, Narabaj Tamang went to bed after dinner and fell asleep, only to be found dead the next morning. While the medical report ascribes his death to an “acute respiratory failure”, Yongan will never know what really happened to her husband. Here in Nepal, hundreds of families have lost relatives in Qatar – men and women who have taken jobs thousands of kilometres from home in order to get the small emirate ready to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
As the world turned its attention to this year’s World Cup in Brazil, more than 1.4 million migrant workers – 400,000 of them from Nepal – were building the hotels, highways, stadiums and airports that will give life to the first World Cup organised in the Middle East. According to consulting company Deloitte, Qatar will spend about $200 billion in construction projects ahead of the competition, recruiting more than half a million additional workers to complete them. While the past two World Cups, in Brazil and South Africa, caused the death of nine workers, the International Trade Union Confederation has warned that the systematic abuses faced by labourers in Qatar could cause the death of up to 4000 people before the first ball is kicked in the Gulf nation in eight years’ time.
According to the Nepali Foreign Employment Promotion Board, at least 672 Nepali workers have died in Qatar in the past five years, many of them worked to death in a country where trade unions are illegal and minimum wages do not exist. Many more end up as de facto slaves on construction sites, working under the beating desert sun without any training, their passport confiscated, their wages and living conditions not matching the jobs and salaries originally promised. While Qatar has been heavily criticised for its mistreatment of foreign labourers, the web of abuses, deception and indebtedness in which the workers become entangled often starts in their home country. Tamang’s story is just another example of this.
A young man from the rural district of Tehrathum, in the far east of Nepal, Tamang met and married Yongan four years ago, just after finishing high school. At first he tried to make a living in Nepal, working as an English teacher in a boarding school, but the monthly pay of 3000 rupees (about $US30) wasn’t enough to sustain his family. “He always used to say that we were suffering and we needed more money,” recounts Yongan, who is hosted in a guesthouse in the capital Kathmandu, where she is now claiming her husband’s life insurance of $1500.
Ultimately, Tamang made the same decision as millions of other Nepalis who migrate to the Gulf countries and Malaysia in search of a better future. But his dreams quickly turned sour. Although he had been promised a job as a security guard, Tamang arrived in Doha to discover he was assigned to work as a skyscraper window cleaner, a dangerous job for which he received no training. While the Nepali manpower agency that sent him to Qatar had promised a wage of about $330 a month, his real salary was one-third lower than that.
Like many of his compatriots, Tamang had been cheated and couldn’t do much: the kafala, or sponsorship, system in Qatar meant his visa was tied to his employer, a practice that makes it almost impossible for workers to change jobs, leave the country without their employer’s consent, or sue the companies in the case of a wage or labour dispute.
On top of this, Tamang had to return the $1200 loan he had taken to pay the recruitment agency in Kathmandu and the flight ticket to Doha, a massive amount of money in a country where the gross domestic product per capita stands at just $1102, the 20th lowest in the world. His only option was to work an average of 12 hours a day, six days a week, to send home as much money as possible, until the day he died. His grieving widow will now have to find a way to provide for her son. The insurance money will run out soon, leaving another Nepali family in poverty, its dreams of a better life crushed in the Gulf.
Each day, an average of two dead workers arrive at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, their coffins clearly recognisable. While the corpses don’t come from Qatar alone, the country has been consistently listed among the worst destinations, together with Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, by workers and stakeholders interviewed for this story. At the arrivals hall, families wait patiently for hours, mourning in silence while filing paperwork in order to retrieve and cremate their loved ones. Most of them come from rural villages in the Terai, the highly populated and poor lowlands at the southern border with India. A few hundred metres away, at the departures hall of the crammed airport, scores of youngsters are queueing from 7am. Carrying small bags with a handful of clothes, their gazes a mixture of hope and fear, as many as 1700 workers leave Nepal every day from these gates, heartbroken but resolute to flee a country where unemployment is estimated at 46 per cent. While all of them are aware of the shocking number of dead workers in their destination countries and seriously worried about undergoing the same fate, their answer is simple and disarming: we don’t have a choice.
“If the government were really serious about employment, they would create opportunities here. But they are just happy in facilitating workers to leave,” says Nilambar Badal, of the Asian Human Rights and Culture Development Forum, one of several associations that assist Nepali migrant workers. Seven million Nepalis, 33 per cent of the total workforce, are estimated to work abroad, the main destinations being India, Malaysia and the Gulf countries.
Workers hoping to migrate generally get in touch with village brokers with links to the manpower agencies based in Kathmandu, which recruit the workers to be sent abroad. Since most of them live in areas far from the capital, intermediaries charge a fee between $750 and $2000 to take care of all the paperwork – contracts, passport applications, medical reports, flight tickets and so on – to minimise the workers’ trips to the capital. Migrant labourers often arrive in Kathmandu only one or two days before their scheduled departure in order to take their documents and sign the contract. This gives them very little time to examine it, provided they are able to read in a country where the literacy rate is less than 66 per cent. Many of them rely on the good faith and promises of the agencies. “Workers cannot withdraw themselves at that point, as they have already taken loans to pay for the trip,” explains Rameshwar Nepal, the director of the local branch of Amnesty International. “Recruitment agencies put them in a situation where they will have to work as forced labour.” In many cases, when they arrive in Qatar, workers are offered a different contract, with a lower salary and poorer working conditions.
Still, the urgency to leave is felt everywhere in the country: last year, remittances from abroad reached more than $5 billion and made up almost 25 per cent of the national GDP, the third highest percentage in the world. The streets of Kathmandu are rife with recruitment agency billboards advertising exotic destinations for work or study purposes. Bus stations and guesthouses are filled to capacity by a constant coming and going of workers. From the early morning, hundreds of people, mostly men, swamp the offices of the Department of Foreign Employment and the Central Passport Authority in order to get their documents ready.
Some of them will leave in a few days, but still don’t know where they will head: Himal Suni, a 19-year-old from the mid-western district of Dailekh with a boyish, bewildered look, was told he will probably go to Qatar. “I will do whatever they assign me to do,” he says, adding he will have to provide for his parents and four siblings, all farmers. Remaining in Nepal is not an option. “In this country it doesn’t matter how much you study, you will never get a job,” he says. Many of these first-time travellers don’t even know where Malaysia or the Gulf is, let alone the strict rules that govern alcohol consumption and sexual intercourse in some of the destination countries.
On paper, Nepal has one of the best migration regulation systems in the world: job posts abroad have to be advertised in local newspapers, specifying their duration and pay. Before leaving, all the necessary documents, including contract, hiring company profiles and medical reports have to be submitted to the Department of Foreign Employment for mandatory approval. Workers have to stipulate a compulsory insurance, which will go to their families in case of death or accident, and Nepal has set limits for the recruitment agencies’ fees and stiff penalties for those who don’t respect them. But everyone agrees implementation is poor: recruitment agencies frequently ask for an under-the-counter fee that is often double the one set by law; lack of proper documentation is easily fixed at the airport with the payment of a bribe to the police and immigration officers; and most of the workers are not aware of the existence of the insurance and don’t claim the money even if they are entitled to it.
While the Department of Foreign Employment is supposed to thoroughly check every application, officers have routinely been arrested for corruption and connivance with recruitment agencies. In the dilapidated, urine-scented building where the department is hosted, deputy director Surya Koirala tried to justify himself. “There is connivance between manpower agencies and companies in Qatar, but we cannot reach there,” he explains. “We are a poor country, we cannot impose ourselves against those powerful nations.”
According to several workers who have returned from Qatar, the emirate labourers are hosted in cramped and insalubrious camps, where a few stoves and toilets are shared by hundreds of people. Many work from 10 to 14 hours a day, often in temperatures reaching 55 degrees. In their desperate quest to repay debts, many routinely work overtime, sleeping no more than four hours a day. Exhausted by this rhythm, most of them die from cardiac or respiratory failures, their bodies unable to cope with the fatigue. But while human rights and trade union organisations link these deaths to the appalling working conditions, the government of Qatar classifies them as simple heart failures because “if deaths are not clearly linked with work, foreign countries and companies are not liable”, explains Sumitra Singh, rescue officer at the Foreign Employment Promotion Board, the body responsible for compensating the families of the dead and injured workers. According to him, the problem in improving the workers’ conditions is a lack of will by all the parties involved. “Theoretically, Nepal and Qatar have a labour agreement, but neither they nor the manpower agencies are practising it,” he says.
For its part, the Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies directs the blame to the two governments, accusing them of not doing enough to protect workers’ rights and of having no interest in combating the phenomenon together. This constant blame game allows continuation of a system that seems to be kept dysfunctional on purpose: there can be as many as 12 layers between the worker and the foreign company that employs him which means prospective employees can be cheated and milked at every step with requests for high fees, bribes or denials of their basic rights.
Bhupendra Malla Thakuri, a portly and friendly 32-year-old man with vivid eyes and a frank smile, knows it all too well. He arrived in Qatar on January 2011; five months later, he suffered a severe car accident while working as a driver. He spent three months in a hospital emergency ward and had six operations in order to save his right leg. Although the surgery was eventually successful, Bhupendra almost lost the use of his leg because of the poor medical treatment he received. “Today I can’t put pressure on my leg. I can’t farm and I can’t even walk without crutches,” he says, exposing a deeply scarred limb and a calf stripped of any flesh. But it was only after he was discharged from the hospital that Thakuri’s real ordeal started. Unwilling to provide any compensation for the accident, his employer stopped paying him and tried to hastily repatriate him to Nepal. It took Thakuri two years of legal battles to receive a compensation payout of $33,000 and force the company to cover his medical expenses. During this time, he was secretly hosted and fed by his co-workers, who defied the company’s dictates and risked their own jobs in order to help him.
Others were not so lucky. Rajaram Rayamajhi, a 29-year-old Nepali worker who was involved in that same accident and spent three months in hospital in a coma, didn’t receive any compensation in Qatar. After four months of treatment, the company made him sign a document he didn’t understand and sent him back to Nepal in a wheelchair. Today, Rayamajhi is forced to walk on crutches and cannot do manual labour. Due to a head injury from the accident, he cannot speak properly. According to his brother, Rajan, the family has tried to get in touch with the company many times, to no avail. “The manager kept telling us the compensation would arrive. It was a lie,” says Rajan. His brother still has to repay half of the $2000 loan he took to go to Qatar. “We are all trying to support him, but for how long will we be able to do so?”
Still, despite all the disappointments and setbacks, the queues to leave the country grow longer by the day. Many workers have turned it into a full-time profession, often returning to Nepal for just a few months at the end of a contract before embarking on another. Their dreams are as ordinary as they are unrealisable: to gain enough money to support their children’s education, buy a plot of land and set up a small shop. “Those who go abroad are generally males between 20 and 35 years,” explains Dr Ganesh Gurung, a migration expert at the Nepal Institute of Development Studies. “Seventy per cent of them are unskilled and economically below the average, but they are not the poorest of the poor.”
The mass exodus of people is having serious social consequences for the country. Agriculture has been neglected, turning Nepal into a net importer of agricultural products and attracting thousands of seasonal Indian workers every year to work the abandoned fields. Women are left alone to look after their children and work in the fields, a job traditionally reserved for men. The growing isolation between migrant workers and their families has also caused a spike in the HIV rate due to extramarital affairs. Education is also suffering. “Kids are not serious in their studies; their ultimate goal is to go abroad,” Gurung says. “Work migration is a blessing and an emergency valve for our economy, but it’s not a solution for the long-term development of the country.” Despite a continuous focus on job creation in government economic planning over the past 60 years, Nepal cannot absorb the 400,000 young people entering the labour market every year.
Under a growing wave of criticism, Qatari authorities have promised reforms of the country’s labour laws, namely the abolition of the kafala system and the “exit visa” that workers need to obtain from their employers in order to leave the country. Last February, Qatar promoted a new welfare standard for the workers employed in the construction of the stadiums, but not for those working on other related infrastructure. So far, though, the reforms have not been implemented, and according to testimonies from workers and human rights organisations, the situation on the ground has not improved.
The International Trade Union Confederation said Qatar’s promises on labour laws are “purely cosmetic”, asking FIFA to intervene. While last November FIFA president Sepp Blatter described the situation as “unacceptable”, adding that “fair working conditions must be introduced quickly, consistently and on a sustained basis in Qatar”, FIFA has not so far hinted at revoking Qatar’s right to host the 2022 World Cup. In Nepal, few believe in a real improvement. “Nothing has really changed. The government made these announcements only to save face,” says Badal. The Qatar embassy in Kathmandu did not reply to several requests for a formal interview.
Back in Meghauli, where he now rents a small room for his family, Thakuri is busy rebuilding his life. Despite the somewhat happy end to his saga, and the rare compensation, Thakuri’s victory has a bitter taste. His right foot is swollen and dark. Unable to bend his knee or ankle anymore, he was forced to leave his house in the hills around Kathmandu to settle in the Terai plains, where walking is less tiring. As for the compensation, a big chunk went towards repaying a loan that had skyrocketed to more than $10,000 during his two-year convalescence in Qatar. With the remaining money, Thakuri was able to buy a small plot of land for cultivation, but his injuries don’t allow him to tend it properly. Still grateful for what he considers a second life, Thakuri wants to make the most of it by setting up a counselling service for workers to put them on guard about the problems they will face abroad. “I want to share my experience with others,” he explains. “People abroad mistreat us because Nepal leaves us no options.”
While the request for labourers continues to grow in Malaysia and the Gulf, so does the constant flow of coffins arriving at Tribhuvan airport. In the silence of the arrivals hall, after all the passengers and mountain tourists have left for the city centre, new widows are left alone, weeping silently while their relatives load the heavy coffins in the back of pick-up trucks for the long road-trip home. A few hundred metres away, at the departures hall, proud but worried young girls take the last pictures of their boyfriends who are about to leave. If they’re lucky they will see them again in two years’ time. A cradle of excitement and desperation, joy and sorrow, the dilapidated, red-brick airport encompasses all the feelings entangling the Nepali society. After a last, emotional farewell, workers disappear into the check-in area. Some of them will return relatively rich, others will never come back.