October 14, 2011
Last December, Nepal lifted a 12-year ban on women working as domestic help in the Gulf. A week ago, the government announced its plan to deploy about 150,000 female workers to the region. The reverse in policy needs to be closely examined, if not reconsidered.
Granted, income from remittances is one of the most important ways low-skilled Nepali women can earn an income for themselves and their families. A World Bank study on large-scale migration and remittances reported in June that Nepal received 2.5 billion US dollars as remittances in the fiscal year 2009 – 2010, overtaking Bangladesh and the Philippines, the two (previously) largest manpower-supplying countries. 15 percent of the amount comes from Nepali women. According to United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and Nepal Institute of Development Studies (NIDS) data, there are about 147,000 Nepali women currently engaged in overseas jobs, the majority—46 percent—in Saudi Arabia.
At first glance, this would seem to be a godsend for the Nepali economy and for women who see no hope in Nepal. “Poverty and unemployment are the main factors driving women to seek work abroad …", says Bijaya Rai Shrestha, director at Pourakhi, a non-profit organization founded to counsel migrant workers and rescue them from trouble abroad. "The third reason is domestic violence: abusive husbands who take a second wife or in-laws who beat and torture them," Shrestha told IPS.
OUT OF THE FRYING PAN, INTO THE FIRE
But what are the hazards for Nepali women sent to the Gulf? Physical, mental and sexual abuse from employees, disappearance and trafficking – some of the reasons for enacting a ban in the first place – have not been eradicated in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
In a report issued last November by Migrant Rights, the assesment was chilling:
Perhaps the most shameful examples of degradation of human beings as disposable items occur in Arabian Gulf countries. Saudi Arabia has labor laws, and perhaps penalties for non-compliance are also stated, but its clear failure or inability to implement them is deplorable.
In another report published a year ago by Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia’s discrimination of migrant workers was particularly egregious:
Asian migrant rights activists commented bitterly to Human Rights Watch about racial discrimination in Saudi Arabia. Noting that slavery was not abolished there until 1962, they argued that its legacy continues to influence the perception and treatment of migrant workers. Saudi Arabia is a state party to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), but the government has done little to bring practical meaning to the treaty's guarantees.
SAUDIA ARABIA’S TRACK RECORD
According to Nepal Embassy officials in Riyadh last March, Nepali migrant workers can easily become trapped in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government often refuses them “exit visas” because of their “illegal” status. Officials said though most of them entered the country legally as unskilled laborers, they were automatically rendered illegal when they fled their first employer for various reasons, including exploitation, torture and low payment.
“We don’t have exact official data, but rough estimates show there could be around 70,000 to 80,000 unskilled Nepali migrant workers who are willing to return home but are unable to do so due to strict immigration laws, which require employer’s approval for exit,” Charge d’ Affaires of Nepali Embassy in Riyadh Paras Ghimire told the Kathmandu Post. “Our efforts to get exit permits for them have been in vain.”
According to Saudi Arabia’s kafala system, migrant workers cannot leave the country without the written permission of their employers. A recent study by US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) concluded that the kafala system has “contributed to workers getting trapped in abusive conditions” and urged the Saudi government to scrap the law.
The law has subjected thousands of migrant workers to employers’ abuses such as non-payment of wages, forced confinement in workplace, confiscation of passports, excessive work hours with little rest, physical and sexual abuse, and forced labor including trafficking. Appeals by HRW and other organizations to the Saudi government to scrap the kafala system have been ignored.
In March, the King of Saudi Arabia announced granting exit permits to all illegal immigrants who arrived on visit or tourist visas, but this does not apply to Nepali workers who arrived here on working visa.
Asked whether the Nepal Embassy could help trapped workers return home, embassy officials said they can only issue travel documents to those who come into contact but that is not sufficient to get an exit permit.
The Nepali authorities virtually stand helpless in this case. “I don’t think we could convince the Saudi government singly. It may be possible if a delegation of all representatives of labor supplying countries here made a joint request,” said Ghimire.
Statistics at the Nepal Embassy at Riyadh show that there are roughly 500,000 Nepalis unskilled labourers currently working in Saudi Arabia and around 20 percent of them are illegal.
Foreign Affair ministry officials in Kathmandu said they don’t have enough information about the number of trapped Nepali workers.
OHCHR Nepal Chief Jyoti Sanghera said Nepal has not taken measures to protect migrant workers’ rights despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of its young women and men are migrant workers in Asia and the Gulf States, and contribute millions of dollars via remittances to keep the economy of Nepal afloat.
“A country like Nepal, whose migrant workers constitute the backbone of its economy, should take steps to protect the rights of Nepali migrant workers.” She urged that Nepal should become party to the UN International Convention on the Protection of all Migrant Workers, which could help secure the rights of its migrant workers. According to the Convention, it is the duty of both countries of origin and destination to protect the human rights of migrant workers and their families.
RECENT DEVELOPMENTS AND NEPAL’S SUPPOSED POWER TO PROTECT OVERSEAS WORKERS
Last month, the Philippines government said it could soon issue a ban on the deployment of domestic workers to three Gulf countries -- Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar – because it says it cannot guarantee their protection. Already, they have been banned from working in Saudi Arabia because of the Philippine outcry of abuse by Saudi Arabian employers. This is a primary reason for Saudi Arabian officials turning to Nepal: to fill the gap.
It is ironic, then, that the Nepal government says that it can guarantee protection to the maids – this, according the new Nepalese ambassador Udaya Raj Pandey, who is based in Riyadh. Pandey said in comments recently published by Saudi daily Arab News that Nepalese women would be allowed to work in Saudi Arabia as maids, but only for carefully vetted sponsors who agree to certain conditions. He also indicated that Nepal had proposed a SR 1,000 minimum monthly salary for Nepalese workers and stipulated other terms and conditions.
“An orientation program is now in place in Kathmandu and it’s mandatory for female migrant workers to attend it before they are deployed in the kingdom,” he said.
But realistically, one must ask oneself: What power does Nepal have in the Gulf countries to monitor or protect its migrant workers – especially, since the government seems to be incapable of protecting its workers within the Nepali borders?
Sthaneshwar Devkota, executive director of the state-run Foreign Employment Promotion Board, recently admitted: "Being mostly illiterate and unaware, [female migrant workers] are easily duped. For instance, though they get free visas, many agencies swindle them."
"The more dangerous ruse is making them go though India. If their documents are not in order or they are being lured to banned destinations like Lebanon, immigration authorities at Kathmandu airport will spot the fraud. So they are made to go to India first. It increases the danger of the women being forced into the flesh trade."
Then there are the disappearances. While the labor ministry claims there are nearly 30,000 to 40,000 Nepalese maids in the Gulf, Pourakhi estimates that the actual number is over 300,000. Most of them are undocumented, having no valid papers.
"A nine-point yardstick has been drawn up," said Devkota. "It has fixed the minimum salary and laid down conditions like a secure separate room for the maid and allowing her to contact her family and the embassy once a week."
Employers are also required to show sound financial status to pay the promised salary and must have no morality-related cases against them.
But who is going to enforce these regulations? Certainly not the government of Nepal.
EXCERPTS FROM THE INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS REPORT, MARCH 2011
It has been estimated that in recent years more than 500 Nepalese people per day go abroad for foreign employment.
Most international migrants, particularly in Gulf countries, are employed in the occupations which fall in the category of "three Ds" (difficult, dirty, and dangerous).
The Government of Nepal has introduced mandatory pre-departure training for the migrant workers, but some of the training institutes in Nepal provide certificates to the migrants without completing the training or even after no attendance at the orientation session at all. Nepalese migrants have an increased chance of accidents and suffering from other health problems than the local workers because of the long working hours, local languages, and poor living and working conditions. There have also been some reported cases of unexplained deaths of Nepalese migrants. Health and psychological problems due to degrading and dangerous jobs have forced some Nepalese migrants to leave their jobs and return home.
Migrants are more likely to suffer from occupational injuries and disability than the native workers.
Temporary migrants are usually excluded from the health, welfare and social services at the destination country. Migrants usually have low capacity to pay for medical services, poor access to health care and unsatisfactory health outcomes. Costs for health care services are often expensive for migrants and sometimes migrants even have to deposit certain amounts of money to receive health services. Nepalese migrants to the Gulf countries and their family members typically do not have insurance coverage. Legal migrants are only insured for the accidents at the work place and they find it hard to access the health services for other health problems.
Whatever ambassadors and public officials may say to the contrary, does this sound like a safe environment for Nepali women?