Last week countries around the world marked International Migrants Day in recognition of the 214 million international migrants on the move across the globe in search of better economic opportunity. Nowhere is this recognition more important than in Nepal, where foreign employment has become a viable livelihood option for millions who are unable to find work within the country. In recent years, though, sobering cases of labor exploitation and labor trafficking have been reported by Nepali labor migrants, who are increasingly calling for stronger government policies to protect the rights of migrant workers.
Qatar, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait are the top five labor destination countries with the highest number of Nepali migrant workers. According to the Department of Foreign Employment, from January to December 2012, about half a million Nepali citizens (women and men) migrated abroad for work. Along with demand for low-skilled labor due to economic growth in the destination countries, Nepalis also seek work overseas as a result of poverty, unemployment, slow economic growth, and political instability at home. Most male Nepali migrant workers are employed in low-skilled sectors, such as construction and manufacturing, whereas the majority of female migrants work in the informal sector, either as caregivers or housemaids. While this might look promising in terms of employment opportunities, the plight of the migrants is far from ideal in terms of securing acceptable labor standards and safeguarding their basic labor rights such as formal contracts that specify minimum wage, timely payments, acceptable labor conditions, and health benefits.
From March 2012 to December 2012, The Asia Foundation, in partnership with local research institutes in Nepal, India, and Bangladesh, initiated a research project to examine the challenges of labor migration by focusing on the aspects of migration process of documented and undocumented migrant workers.
The study, which will be released in January 2013, illustrates that much of the fraud and exploitation related to foreign employment is rooted in the recruitment phase itself. Findings indicate Nepali migrants increasingly rely on individual “agents” rather than formal recruitment agencies to guide and facilitate their migration process. These individual agents are people known to the migrants, such as family members or friends. These agents function outside of the legal framework and are often associated with many different licensed recruitment agencies simultaneously. Further, the study shows that these local “agents” have complex, murky systems of operating through a chain of agents and organized sub-networks of handlers, financiers, and document fabricators, both within Nepal and in India. They are loosely linked to the formal recruitment agencies and are paid on a piecemeal basis. Potential migrants naturally place high trust with these individuals, making things even riskier.
In fact, Nepal’s 2007 Foreign Employment Act includes provisions for regulating the operation of recruitment agencies and registered agents to facilitate the migration process. But most of these institutions are in Kathmandu, the capital, which limits access to these services for those in far-flung districts. In this situation, a centralized system of migration services has actually perpetuated the dangerous use of informal agents as a bridge between the migrants, registered recruitment agencies, and the government.
Our research indicates that legal loopholes in the government framework have facilitated undocumented migration by the agents and recruitment agencies. A recent article in the Himalayan Times stated that every day, 30 to 40 undocumented women travel through India, mainly via New Delhi and Mumbai. It is interesting to note that India is seen as an easy access point by Nepali migrants who are unable to fully comply with the formal documentation and regulations of the Government of Nepal. Moreover, the agents and recruitment agencies use the Indo-Nepal border to facilitate unofficial labor migration to Gulf countries. The agents in both countries work in an organized way to smuggle the migrants using fake passports, tourist visas, and false contract papers. Migrants cited that they opt to go via the unofficial route because many of the destination countries do not have embassies in Nepal, and also, that they provide faster documentation and visa processing, reduction in cumbersome paperwork, and looser monitoring. These migrant workers who go through the unofficial channels (mainly female migrants who are working in households) fall outside the orbit of government protection. The undocumented status increases their exposure to exploitation by unscrupulous agents, who push them abroad without legitimate working visas or formal labor contracts. Under such circumstances, given the illegal nature of their entry into the destination country, the migrant worker is unable to seek redresses from the local law enforcement agencies or the Embassy when faced with sexual and labor exploitation by the agent or the employer.
In addition, many of the Nepali migrant workers that we interviewed, especially women, do not have official documents, such as citizenship certificates from their country of origin (Nepal), which are mandatory to officially migrate for work purposes in the first place. As a result, these documents are illegally procured by the agents for them from India. This creates increased risks and legal problems when someone needs to be sent back to their home country in the event of an accident, death, or abuse. A recent policy in Nepal that bans women less under the age of 30 from going to work as domestic caregivers to the Gulf countries has made it more likely that female migrant workers will turn to unofficial migration channels as an alternative.
While we are still finalizing the study in Bangladesh, preliminary findings reflect similar gaps and challenges in terms of the migration process for documented and undocumented migrant workers. The issues of illegal entry or entry based on fraudulent documents, deception regarding the nature of work, abuse in the workplace, and low or no salary payments are common problems faced by migrants. This could be the case for both official and unofficial migration. Based on the examination of official and unofficial channels from India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, the aim of the study is to provide specific recommendations in policies and structures that will strengthen accountability systems and mechanisms to ensure an informed and empowered labor migration process. This would mean more concerted bilateral dialogue that could result in agreements with labor receiving countries that protect the migrant workers’ rights; increased bilateral or multilateral collaboration to investigate and address the cross-border nexus of the organized crime; advocacy with destination countries to comply with international standards that promote and protect the right of migrants workers; and greater salary parity among migrant workers based on the work and not on the country of origin. Within the country of origin, there needs to be increased access to pre-departure information at the community and national level to ensure safe migration. More focus should also be given to skills training and improving and simplifying access to services that are required to obtain legal papers and procedures to migrate through the official channels as specified in the national law.
Nandita Baruah is The Asia Foundation’s chief of party for the Combating Trafficking in persons (CTIP) Program in Nepal, and Shareen Tuladhar is a program officer there. This article initially appeared on The Asia Foundation’s “In Asia” blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not necessarily those of The Asia Foundation.