The Nepalese government has launched a crackdown on rogue recruitment agencies in an effort to stamp out the exploitation of its vast migrant workforce.
According to the Department of Foreign Employment, more than 200 agencies have been punished since mid-February, with suspensions and fines of up to 200,000 rupees (HK$15,900). Offences include overcharging migrants, establishing illegal branches, taking passports without permission, and making false promises about pay and conditions. Nine agencies have been shut for operating without a licence.
"It has had a great impact. Previously there were so many illegal activities, but nowadays [the recruitment agencies] are very careful," said Krishna Hari Pushkar, the department's new director general.
The clampdown is part of Operation De Pogo, a shake-up of the migrant recruitment process initiated by Pushkar amid concern about the exploitation of Nepal's migrants at home and abroad.
In August last year, 17 officers were arrested for issuing fake documents. In March, a further nine were detained for offences that occurred before Pushkar's appointment.
The recruitment agencies - also known as manpower companies - initially reacted with protests, bribes and threats, he said, but this has not fazed him.
"It's normal for me. I know how to manage the risks and security threats," said Pushkar, who has a solid record of tackling corruption. "They come and talk now instead."
However, Bal Bahadur Tamang, president of the Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies, argues that most of the blame lies not with manpower companies, but with the local brokers who recruit prospective migrants and put them forward to agencies.
"The problem is at the local level, before the migrants even reach the manpower companies. Our agencies are charging 10-20,000 rupees for each migrant, but the local brokers charge 100,000 rupees and keep the difference for themselves," Tamang said.
Migrant rights groups remain unconvinced that there are signs of real change. Rameshwar Nepal, director of Amnesty International in Nepal, said: "I don't think the crackdown is as sufficient as required. If you look at what happened in the past, manpower agents were booked for minor breaches, but not for substantive violations of the law. There have been some changes, which is a welcome step, but very few and very minor."