Nepalis forced to seek work abroad

While they may face slave-like conditions, abuse and even death in places like Qatar, good jobs remain scarce in their homeland

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 October, 2013, 4:50am

Raju Prasad Lamichhane is thinking of leaving Nepal again to drive trucks in Qatar even though his father died while working in the Gulf emirate.

"What else can we do? We have no other source of income," Lamichhane said in the half- finished house he started building in Telkot village near Kathmandu with money earned in the Persian Gulf region. "If I could find work here, I would stay."

When he goes, Lamichhane will join at least 400,000 Nepalis expected to leave this year for jobs in construction and as domestic workers in the Gulf and Malaysia.

The treatment of Nepalis building stadiums for the 2022 World Cup soccer tournament in Qatar has come under scrutiny after a report by the The Guardian that dozens had died on building sites between early June and early August.

Both governments dispute those numbers, but say 276 Nepalis died in Qatar last year, 20 per cent while working.

Qatar repeatedly rejected claims of slavery-style conditions on construction sites in the emirate - the world's wealthiest nation per capita. It says it takes its international commitments seriously, and has announced plans to double its number of labour inspectors to 150, though critics question the impact.

The deaths in Qatar, as well as in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, have shone a light on the huge migration from the landlocked Himalayan nation that got going during a 10-year civil war and has only accelerated since.

Nepal's politicians have failed in the seven years since the end of the war to write a constitution, leaving the country in an unruly limbo that has soured the business climate and stunted economic growth and job creation.

Nepal is one of the world's poorest countries, despite the promises of the Maoists who rose up against a discredited monarchy during the war and now dominate a fractured political system. Nepal is due to hold its first elections in five years next month but the Lamichhanes hold out little hope.

"The political situation will not bring any change, the government and politicians won't create jobs," said Raju Prasad Lamichhane, 25.

An open border allows Nepalis to move back and forth into India, and the government says it does not know how many citizens have left. About 10 per cent of Nepal's 26.5 million people are documented as being abroad, but most estimates say double that number could have gone.

The money they send back has nearly doubled in the past two years to US$4.34 billion. It accounts for more than 20 per cent of gross domestic product.

People leave despite the risk they will not come back.

At the Foreign Employment Promotion Board in Kathmandu last Tuesday, half a dozen bereaved families and widows sought government compensation for the deaths of relatives overseas. The officer in charge, Yamlal Adhikari, said: "They're dying young. It's a problem we must stop."

Lamichhane's brother, Dilli, and his father, Shiva, worked for a company making portable buildings. Shiva painted panels, Dilli said, doing 16-hour shifts in air heavy with heat and fumes.

They put up with bosses who called them "dogs" and "monkeys", they said, because 900-1,200 riyals (HK$1,915-$2,550) a month was far more than they could get at home.

In August last year, Shiva Lamichhane returned to his dormitory, vomited and passed out. He died in hospital after 19 days in a coma. The family said the company paid the hospital bill and sent his body home.

The cause of death was registered as coronary failure. He had no history of heart problems.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse