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An Interesting Irony: Hira Bahadur Thapa
While our workers are contributing immensely to the country’s economy by sending billions of rupees in remittances, paradoxically their grievances are poorly handled. There are frequent news that hundreds of such underprivileged workers end their lives either accidentally or naturally every year in foreign lands, and in majority of the cases, their corpses are transported back to Nepal only after months and months of efforts. Workers have been forced to face a host of obstacles in the labour destinations, the reasons for which are various, and the government mechanism to assist them in overcoming the difficulties has woefully proved ineffective.
Increasing flow of workers
The flow of our workers to different labour destinations has been steadily increasing since the restoration of democracy in 1990, which includes a significant number of female employees. The largest concentration of Nepali migrant workers lies in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, including Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait. Malaysia has lately been one of the most favoured labour destinations although Nepal has not been successful in negotiating a bilateral labour agreement with that country despite years of endeavours to that end.
Incidents of exploitation of our workers have occurred in several countries, but the frequency of such cases is naturally higher in closed societies of the Middle Eastern countries where female employees serving as housemaids have become more vulnerable to misbehaviour. Their gender, compulsion to confine themselves to the home offering domestic services like cooking, cleaning and ironing, and lack of language skills have added to their woes.
Moreover, our domestic workers have faced hurdles in handling their jobs due to skills deficiency as many of them are not accustomed to using the modern kitchens where new technology devices, including electronic ovens and dishwashers, are fitted. Their poor foreign language abilities hardly help them when they need to consult the manuals.
Notwithstanding the fact that there are hundreds of manpower agencies engaged in sending Nepali workers abroad, no system is in place to explore the jobs in the labour destinations that suit the employees. Such agencies are busy disseminating news of job vacancies in some foreign markets and luring the prospective workers to join them even without knowing the exact nature of the work they are supposed to take up once they land in foreign cities.
In most of the cases, the migrant workers are ready to sign the fake documents because of the economic pressure they are forced to bear. The terms and conditions enumerated in the contract papers are not easily comprehended by the poorly educated workers. Even if they can read and find out the salary being offered, the manpower agency brokers just hoodwink them by hiding the original contract papers.
This is one of the reasons why a large number of our workers get cheated as they do not understand the real terms and conditions of the employment. Moreover, they are asked to undertake other hard manual duties with lower pay and other facilities about which they remain ignorant until they reach their job destinations.
The above scenario makes most of the workers illegal as they try to abandon the difficult jobs, which they are not supposed to take up as per the information provided to them before leaving Nepal. Knowing that they have no other alternative left to survive, these poor, unskilled workers continue to be exploited by their employers with lower pay scales. Because many exploitative employers seize the workers’ passports to prevent them from leaving their jobs, the employees become more vulnerable to misbehaviour and injustice and cannot raise their voices against exploitation.
The case of domestic maids is more pathetic. As female workers they are doubly exploited. They can hardly complain when they are even sexually harassed because they are confined to the employers’ homes. Little wonder that some workers get so depressed due to the persistent harassment that they resort to committing suicide. Some of them have become mentally unstable. Unable to work further they are compelled to return to Nepal and finally become a burden to the family.
While abroad, Nepalese workers have suffered numerous difficulties. The government has set up different agencies, including embassies in many labour destination countries, which are supposed to provide assistance to the workers in need. But owing to some inherent flaws, the government offices have not been up to the mark. The embassies too often grumble about the lack of manpower and other facilities to efficiently serve the migrant workers.
They have performed miserably even in handling the machine readable passports, as a result of which a large number of Nepali citizens residing abroad have faced problems. News had circulated a few months earlier that a mobile team of foreign ministry personnel would be deployed in some of the Gulf countries to promptly issue the passports, but it remains unknown if such measures are in effect.
Against the background of a host of obstacles faced by Nepali migrant workers, the Foreign Employment Promotion Board and other related government officials have been misusing the fund created solely for the welfare of poor workers as revealed in the print media. Each worker is asked to deposit a minimum amount of 1000 rupees as one’s contribution to the Workers’ Welfare Fund, which is to be utilised for assisting the labourers whenever they are in trouble.
Purpose-wise it looks fine, but the hard reality is that the workers have not been able to take advantage from the fund in many cases due to numerous conditions attached to the procedure of releasing the amount. A thorough review is needed in this regard so that deserving workers have easy access to the fund.
In this connection, it is ironical to learn that even highly-skilled Nepali workers like doctors, engineers and financial analysts, among others, who have received their education and employment in developed countries like the U.S. and UK, have been compelled to pay 1000 rupees to the above fund to obtain employment approval upon their departure.
On humanitarian grounds one may see some justification in this as Nepali citizens contribute to help fellow citizens, but how can the government justify their payment on whom it does not spend a single paisa for their welfare? More painfully those skilled workers have to pay insurance premium which has no relevance at all.
The Non-Resident Nepalese (NRN) should be aware of this and lobby with the concerned government agencies for removing such anomaly, which has remained an interesting irony.
Professor Dr Abhi Subedi is a creative giant. He is an essayist, critic, linguist, playwright and poet. Born in Terhathum of eastern Nepal, Subedi received...