Nepal’s main export, cheap labour, is likely to set a record this year of about 375,000 workers leaving the country for foreign employment. About a quarter of them go to Malaysia and other Asian countries, but the vast majority wind up in Middle East, in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait.
Construction jobs dominate, but Nepalis also work in hotels, restaurants, retail shops and in some cases on cruise ships. Wages typically are low, less than $1,000 per month, but that is much more than the same sorts of jobs pay in Nepal.
Much of that money is sent home – nearly four billion dollars a year, about a quarter of the country’s GDP. That figure is probably a substantial underestimate: Workers carry cash back to Nepal when they come to visit, and there is a flourishing underground money transfer system called hundi as well.
Most of the remittance money goes to support the workers’ families. Lots of families. Estimates for the number of Nepalis working abroad range up to seven million, more than the number of households counted in the 2011 census. That’s good, but it comes at a cost for the country in lost productivity of those missing workers and in slower development. One study found that only 2.5 percent of the remittance money ends up in capital investments.
And there is a cost to the workers too. Some are swindled by labor brokers here or in intermediary countries and never reach their destination. Many others arrive to find the job, conditions or even the country of employment different that they expected. They have little choice: Most have already borrowed money to pay a broker’s fee and are obligated to pay the cost of their flight from Nepal as well as back home if they decline the job.
Women are especially vulnerable. While they make up less than ten percent of the migrant work force, they are preyed upon by human traffickers as well as unscrupulous brokers. And since most of them end up in male-dominated middle eastern countries, they have less recourse than men when there is a problem.
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly criticized the UAE in particular for exploiting workers from Nepal, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. They say that conditions for workers on two projects of national importance, new branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums, are particularly miserable and have been since the projects started in 2009. A year ago 130 international artists and authors signed a petition calling for better working conditions, but little has changed, says HRW.
And Amnesty International released a report last week called “False Promises: Exploitation and Forced Labour of Nepali Migrant Workers.” Norma Kang Muico, Amnesty International’s Researcher for Asia-Pacific Migrants’ Rights, said “Nepalese people seek a better life abroad but fail before they even leave home, as recruitment agents – who earn huge profits – deceive them regarding their terms of contract.” The report estimates that 90 percent of Nepali migrant workers are cheated.
Those reports and scores of similar ones over many years have been widely reported in Nepal. Even so the number of Nepalis headed for overseas employment is at Gold Rush proportions and growing.