Bigger cages, longer chains

By Deepak Adhikari

12 June 2014

As labour unrest afflicts the World Cup kick-off in Brazil, for Nepal’s migrant workers, Qatar 2022 is a lived reality.
Photo: Flickr / Jabiz Raisdana

Photo: Flickr / Jabiz Raisdana

Several years after his first stint as a migrant worker in the Gulf emirate of Qatar, 30-year-old Tanka Kumar Limbu of Morang district in southeastern Nepal, decided to try his luck working in Malaysia. With its relatively moderate weather and growing migrant population, the Southeast Asian country was touted as an ideal destination for Nepali workers.

A lean man with a face that breaks easily into a smile, Limbu’s hard-earned Qatari riyals had helped him marry and settle down in a dusty village not far from the East-West highway. But he still had to win bread for his family of three, including a four-year-old son. However fertile, the tiny patch of land (about 1.6 acres) that he shared with his younger brother’s family and parents was never going to be enough to support the increasing costs of his young family. A debt that he had taken for ‘family matters’ (he would neither explain why he took the loan nor disclose the amount) was becoming burdensome. 

When he made up his mind to work abroad once again, Limbu sought advice from his friends, who recommended a broker based in Itahari, a highway town of neighbouring Sunsari district. In August last year, he handed his passport to Nabin Yonjan, who in turn deposited it at RR Global Job Tracker, one of over 750 licensed recruitment agencies in Nepal. A month later, he wired NPR 35,000 to the recruitment agency.

By forfeiting his passport to Yonjan and his money to the agency, Limbu entered a vast supply chain, the tentacles of which spread from far-flung villages to the capital Kathmandu, and onward to labour-receiving countries such as Qatar and Malaysia.

As the annual autumn festival of Tihar approached, Limbu’s sisters pleaded with him not to leave home, but he had to move: he had been summoned by the agency to Kathmandu. At the agency office, he was told that he would have to do anything that they required. His brother, who runs an eatery on the edge of Godavari park on the outskirts of Kathmandu, reassured him, saying that the agency was government registered.

Limbu didn’t have the savings to pay the exhorbitant start-up costs (which go well beyond the initial NPR 35,000 down payment) demanded by his agency to work in Malaysia. So he borrowed NPR 105,000 from a local loan shark who charged him an interest rate of 60 percent. At RR Global Job Tracker’s office in Kathmandu, he demanded to know why he was overcharged. (The government has mandated NPR 80,000 as the upper-cost limit to be paid by migrant workers departing for Malaysia, and NPR 70,000 for those headed to the Gulf.) The agent didn’t offer a firm answer, instead muttering garbled excuses. Before he left for Malaysia, Limbu was handed a certificate that said he had attended a two-day orientation training (he hadn’t). He was also handed a medical report, which said: “The above mentioned medical report of Mr Tanka Kumar Limbu is FIT for the mentioned job.” It was issued by Amitabha Buddha Medical Centre (ABMC), an affiliate of the Nepal Health Professional Federation.

On 28 October 2013, after a brief stopover in Dhaka, Limbu descended into Kuala Lumpur on a United Airways flight along with 15 other migrant workers. His mood was upbeat. He had been hired by a company called MMC GAMUDA, which listed Limbu’s job as a ‘general worker’ at ‘a factory’. Although the two-year contract wrongly qualified Limbu as an English speaker (“can speak and understand simple English” – he cannot), he was looking forward to the work and the prospect of supporting his family of subsistence farmers back in Pathari village.  

That dream was shattered a week later, when Fomena, a Malaysian medical laboratory, released his X-Ray report. It read: “the worker’s chest x-ray has abnormal findings.” Though Limbu had been promised a monthly salary of MYR 988 in exchange for working six days a week, eight hours daily, the opportunity would be denied him, thanks to what was likely a falsified medical report. When contacted, ABMC – the Nepali clinic that gave the original report – was terse. The official with whom I spoke – and who would not divulge his name – emphasised that one’s health can change “even in a day”. He also said that, “we don’t check serious diseases such as HIV AIDS.”    

Limbu returned home one and a half months later. With no money, he survived on food provided by the company for the first 30 days of his stay in Malaysia, and then on shared meals with Nepali migrants for the final fortnight. “I feel sad. This is what happens here. I can’t say anything. They must have cheated me because I look simple (sojho),” he told me when I met him outside the office of the Department of Foreign Employment (DOFE). “I can’t say what I will do next. I may go to a foreign country again.”

Reformed labour
The reform of Nepal’s foreign employment sector began in 2007 with the promulgation of the Foreign Employment Act, some 15 years after Nepalis began seeking jobs in countries other than India. The end of the Panchayat regime in 1990 paved the way for the loosening of passport issuance rules, while a growing population of young men and women started looking for jobs in khadi (the Gulf) and Southeast Asia. Outmigration was hastened by the decade-long Maoist insurgency that ended in 2006. Between 1996 and 2006, some 758,675 Nepali migrant workers toiled in foreign countries. Since then, the DOFE’s latest figures put the total population of migrants at three million. In 2012, 453,543 migrants left the country, the largest number to leave in a single year.

When not selling ice cream near his brother’s Godavari eatery or working on construction sites in a vain attempt to repay his debts, Limbu makes rounds of the DOFE, a complex with tin-roofed blocks and two four-storey buildings on the banks of the fetid Bagmati river in Kathmandu. The crowded and understaffed office has a section dedicated to each of the major labour destinations – Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia – and a fourth section for over 100 countries that Nepal allows its citizens to migrate to for work. It is here that cheated workers such as Limbu come to air their grievances and seek redressal. Countless migrant workers are forced to place their faith in the overworked officials at the DOFE, who are themselves not sure their directives will bring justice to the victims of a system that amounts to institutionalised exploitation –  a trap into which desperate young men fall as minnows in a seine.

Photo: Flickr / Richard Messenger

Photo: Flickr / Richard Messenger

 “Nothing is going to happen no matter how many times you write,” a lanky official in a blue blazer told me after I introduced myself as a journalist. He had little time for my questions. A small crowd of men and women had gathered outside his window, where people had queued for hours to register their complaints. On the top floor of the building, buried in flimsy files covered in white cloth, a catalogue of crimes emerged. A man who had duped scores of workers into paying thousands of rupees promising them dream tickets to Macau was being arrested as I arrived. According to a file left abandoned on a nearby bench, between 16 July and 16 August last year, 114 general complaints had been registered. Earlier in the afternoon, inside the chamber of one of the DOFE’s several directors, a heated debate had ensued, with the representative of a recruitment agency attempting unsuccessfully to placate an irate worker. The scene was one of chaos and disorder.

Although the DOFE complex appears unworkably pell-mell, it is the heart of Nepal’s foreign employment business, a business built on a market model that has a rogue logic all of its own. The post-recruitment ‘regulation’ process begins here and ends just a kilometre away at the international airport. The formalities proceed thus: the marketing director of a licensed labour recruiting agency approaches a foreign-based company and secures a letter of demand for the migrant labourer. After receiving a letter of demand, the agency applies for a prior approval permit at the DOFE. Once stamped by the DOFE, the recruitment or manpower agency advertises the job in a national daily newspaper. The employer is vetted and the salary and benefits on offer scrutinised, after which the DOFE issues a work permit. Once the foreign company sends visas, the employment agencies and their footsoldiers scramble to meet the departure deadline. Government officials procrastinate. A letter of demand, a power of attorney, an agreement between the Nepal-based agency and the employer, the worker’s contract and a guarantee letter must all be supplied. The workers, meanwhile, must undergo a medical examination in one of 150 certified clinics in Kathmandu.

Though seemingly straightforward, the system relies on unaccountable middlemen operating via informal arrangements. From before the official process begins, brokers and subagents – in their tens of thousands and based outside Kathmandu – exploit the trust placed in them by credulous villagers suspicious of Kathmandu-based firms. Their function in the market is created and maintained by agencies that advertise pre-filled jobs in print, rather than on FM radio or the television channels that are popular among largely illiterate or semi-literate rural citizens. Upon registering the worker at the DOFE, powerful financial incentives are shopped out to ad-hoc companies peddling bogus paperwork: medical reports (as is likely in Limbu’s case) are falsified. Bribes are paid. Among the 750 registered recruitment agencies, only a few have employed agents. The industy’s backbone is provided by those who work as unregistered freelancers, outside the purview of the law. Given the government’s requirement of an NPR 200,000 deposit for securing a licence to work as a labour agent, it is unsurprising that many choose to operate as vigilantes. 

Regulating failure, enforcing impunity
Sil Kumar Lama, 29, from Thankot, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, signed up for a job as a welder in Qatar a year ago. He paid Hi Nepal International, a Kathmandu-based recruiting firm 80,000 rupees, which amounted to six months of wages. On arrival in Doha, the officials at his Qatari employer Nemer for Metal Works told him his tickets and visa fees were paid by the company. Feeling cheated, he called the recruitment agent, who promised to return the money after he came back to Nepal.

The deception, however, had begun during his very first interview. In Kathmandu, he had been promised a monthly salary of 1300 Riyals with the opportunity to work overtime. But all he received was 1000 Riyals and was never offered work beyond his stipulated hours. “We had to buy our own food which was very expensive. I could not even pay back my debts,” Lama told me. “I had to spend 500 Riyals on phone bills and food. If you calculate the cost and everything else, it’s better to work in Nepal, the pay is almost equal.” 

Shortly after returning to Kathmandu in February this year, he approached the agency with his grievances. But the agency’s director, Lama told me, was reluctant to entertain his case, denying a refund or compensation of any sort. The agent even threatened him. As a last resort, Lama registered a complaint at the DOFE and is now awaiting justice.

The impunity enjoyed by agents is entrenched. Reflecting more than the weakness of existing mechanisms, the absence of accountability indicates the connivance of government officials within a market that rewards unscrupulous behavior at all stages of the migrant’s journey. Recruitment agents work hand in glove with officials in employing illegal methods to flout regulatory laws in an elaborate process known as ‘setting’. “Setting is widespread,” said Kumar Dahal, a labour representative of a Kathmandu-based recruitment agency. “The labour desk at the airport, the immigration and the DOFE officials have to be bribed in order to make possible a smooth passage for the workers,” he added. While paperwork is often incomplete due to cumbersome and often labyrinthine outsourcing arrangements, even when it is complete, officials are seldom shy to demand gratuities. So lucrative is the graft, and so pervasive official involvement, that according to the managing director of a recruitment agency (who asked not to be named), public servants have been known to pay several lakh rupees to get transferred to posts dealing in the racket. “In such a situation,” he said, the “only motive would be to leap at the chance of amassing a fortune.”   

Labour rights activists have long admonished the state’s flawed regulatory framework and the incentives for corruption that it provides. According to Som Prasad Lamichhane, general secretary of Pravasi Nepali Coordination Committee (PNCC), an NGO set up by former migrant workers, “The government’s monitoring mechanism is not strong. The recruitment agencies are charging nearly double the amount stipulated by the government. You are forced to pay the exorbitant fee if you want to go abroad.” Devi Khatri, the organisation’s treasurer, chimed in, claiming that the recruitment agencies enjoy the benefits of a strong patronage network of powerful politicians. “They (the recruitment agencies) are one of the major donors to political parties and many of them are cadre,” he said.

Lamichhane made clear the centralised, lengthy and bureaucratic nature of the recruitment process beyond the village level, lamenting the fact that migrant workers are forced to travel to Kathmandu for everything, from applying for a Machine Readable Passport to seeking compensation. He recommended that authorities set up information centres in all 75 districts of Nepal and delegate the government’s complaints mechanism to its district level offices. This, according to Lamichhane, would both extend the government’s regulatory influence as well as provide greater accountability.

But according to migrant rights groups, culpability extends beyond recruitment agents and the government. “Workers too are at fault. They are willing to pay anyone who promises a job abroad. They seem to think that they can make a quick buck,” Lamichhane said. “They are not interested in training. They don’t weigh the pros and cons. Your neighbour has gone abroad, so you want to follow suit. The returnee would not normally talk about the hardship. Over the years, foreign employment has become a socially acceptable, even prestigious source of employment. This has led to a tendency to see hopelessness everywhere in Nepal and salvation in foreign countries.”

As Lamichhane details, when things go wrong abroad, however, there is little official support for Nepali workers. Although Nepali embassies are present in the Gulf and Malaysia (home to nearly two million Nepali workers), they are hamstrung by a lack of personnel and resources. With just nine staffers, Nepal’s embassy in Qatar is woefully understaffed. Instead of engaging themselves in diplomatic work, officials there spend their working hours as clerks, writing applications to the labour department, certifying workers’ cases or making enquiries with employers. “These can be handled by anyone with secretarial training. What we need is diplomats who can talk to local officials about the workers’ plights and seek solutions within the laws,” Lamichhane, who recently visited Qatar, told me. To put this in perspective, he compared Nepal with the Philippines. There are only about 250,000 Filipino workers in Qatar, but the country employs 35 staffers at the embassy in Doha, he said.

Passing the buck
Bal Bahadur Tamang, the president of Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies (NAFEA), invited me to a high-end coffee shop near a five-star hotel in downtown Kathmandu. Tamang has been battling a court case against his rival’s attempt to take over the organisation. When we met on the morning of 28 March 2014, the Patan Appellate Court had just issued a week-long interim order, and he was directing his staffers to celebrate his victory with laddu (sweets). Clutching two mobile phones, he also ordered an associate to summon a meeting of the office bearers of the organisation to issue a press statement. Tamang’s business cards listed him as chairman of four business firms, including Sky Overseas Services, one of the largest in Nepal. He is also a franchisee of Indian recruitment agency Jerry Varghese Global Recruitment Services.

Tamang, a slender man who saw no problem in being both a cadre of Nepal’s ruling Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) and a businessman, acknowledged that most workers were cheated from their home villages by unregistered brokers, who he estimated to be around 20,000 in number. “These are the people who hold the workers’ passports. They spread false messages saying that a company that doesn’t charge the worker is not a good one. The more you pay, the better the company, they would say. It must be mandatory for these brokers to be registered by the government,” he said. Despite advancing the interests of those at the other end of the migrant labour industry – employers – Tamang echoed Lamichhane when emphasising the state’s failure in making migrant workers aware of their rights. “The government hasn’t been able to create awareness. Our political parties frown at foreign employment but cannot come up with plans to create jobs in Nepal,” he said. “Why can’t we utilise the networks of political parties across the country to sensitise workers about issues of exploitation?” To Tamang, the DOFE’s insistence on the furnishing of all ‘required’ documents is a ruse for corruption. “The department seeks documents but doesn’t authenticate them, thereby prompting the mushrooming of business’ that supply fake documents. This focus on the documents has led to irregularities,” he said.

While Tamang was happy to find fault in DOFE officials, calling them “notorious as bribe seekers”, he was also somewhat critical of his fellow agents, arguing that, “There is an unhealthy competition among the recruitment agencies,” before deftly moving the conversation to those overseas. Malaysian agents, according to him, would charge up to MYR 5500 commission for a worker from Nepali agents. He added, “We have to compete with other labour-exporting countries as well: Bangladesh, India, even Burma.” In Qatar, according to Tamang, the regulation is lax, which has led to a situation where a Qatari can easily open an employment company. “The vetting process is not rigorous. There are some good companies, who pay for the workers’ visa fee and airfare as well. But most are outsourcing companies that keep the workforce in Doha and supply them as demands occur,” he said.

Despite Tamang’s affable manner, his apparent concern was of questionable sincerity. His companies, and those he represented, have the power to render exploitative local agents redundant overnight by foregoing their services. Likewise, manpower agencies are responsible for providing the incentives for which dubious operators supply false documents. However unsatisfactory Tamang’s explanations were, his ousting as NAFEA president a week after we spoke – allegedly for speaking against the interests of NAFEA members, his readiness to speak to the media, and his own political affiliations – portended a bleak future: as the industry closes ranks on those it deems a threat, its apparent opposition to reform and transparency is of concern. 

De-incentivising exploitation
The question of how, if at all, Nepal’s Kafkaesque migrant labour system can be reformed is of vital concern. Purna Chandra Bhattarai, former director general of the DOFE and now a joint secretary at the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, thinks – much like Lamichhane and Tamang – that calibrated government intervention and the regularising of rogue operators is key. “If the law allows recruiting firms to employ subagents, then they should hire them. If they (subagents) are registered with the government, they would be obliged to follow the rules. It would also be easier for law enforcement agencies to nab them if they violate the law,” Bhattarai said.

He has a point. Nonetheless, beyond small-time vigilante freelancers, the labour-export business has spawned a whole new cottage industry of bogus shop-fronts and ‘travel and insurance agents’, that signify the magnitude of the problem. From Kathmandu’s Ring Road, as you drive towards the DOFE offices, you come across nearly two dozen of these offices, which are, in reality, unregistered manpower agencies. On 26 January 2014, the Central Investigation Bureau of Nepal Police raided the office of Pari Express Travels and Tours, just outside the DOFE offices. The police found 157 copies of passports, hundreds of files containing documents of pre-approval and final approval from the DOFE, more than 100 certificates of orientation training, 27 visa letters for Kuwait and five for United Arab Emirates, medical reports, police reports and even insurance forms. Parbat Shrestha, the managing director of Pari Express Travels and Tours, was arrested at his office. Though the police bust was laudable, the rules of the market will continue to encourage these ad hoc businesses so long as the financial incentives of flouting the law outweigh the risk of getting caught.

Predictably, Bhattarai suggested that the monitoring mechanism should be decentralised. “Instead of focusing too much on procedures and documents, the state should delegate its work to district level offices and spread awareness through village level offices.” He said that the business was devoid of transparency. “The workers should be able to check whether or not the job he’s applied for has been demanded by the company. The department should set up a call centre where the worker can call and check it,” he said. He also suggested involvement of members of civil society as legal advisors. “The government officials from the department to the embassies abroad should take full responsibilities.”

Bhattarai’s solution is not without wisdom, however ironic given his former role in overseeing Nepal’s spurious migrant labour system. Clearly, the Nepali government needs to regulate the market under which migrant labour operates with greater efficiency. Village-level brokers and scrupulous recruitment agents must, however, recognise and take responsibility for their role in perpetuating a fundamentally exploitative market model.

For Tanka Kumar Limbu, still desperately considering another trip abroad to repay his debts, getting duped once again would prove ruinous. That he is thinking about migrating at all is, however, proof that beyond the legislative framework, Nepal’s supply-side labour market has little incentive to reform or self regulate. Exploitation will be ongoing.

~Deepak Adhikari is a Kathmandu-based journalist. He has written for TIME magazine and the Caravan.

One Response to “Bigger cages, longer chains”

  1. Prem Thapa says:

    Touching. Sad but true. How long will we go on watching this modern slavery eating up youths from countries like Nepal? We too are responsible to maintain this global chain of modern slavery, not because we convince the potential slaves to leave the country but because we have not offered them the alternatives when we could.

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