It’s not hard to see why so many Nepalese workers leave their country to try their luck in the rich Gulf states; the sale of their “cheap labor” abroad seems like the only way to climb out of the global wealth gap. But their hope is buoyed on empty promises, according to an investigation by Amnesty International, which shows how Nepal’s migration system transforms its people into commodities on both sides of the labor trade.
The Amnesty report details scores of cases of inhumane treatment, including many migrants reporting they were “beaten, threatened and had their freedom of movement restricted by employers.” Concentrated in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, and within a few low-wage sectors such as construction and domestic work, migration has grown exponentially over the past decade. The official count is more than 290,000 in 2010, but the real number could be as much as double that. The exodus was in part spurred by the chaos resulting from a long-running civil conflict that led to massive killing and displacement.
For a “developing country,” though, these migration patterns are not an example of the “free market” at work. The migrant industry is managed by brokers who funnel labor into foreign markets while authorities turn a blind eye to horrific working conditions, and the workers in turn pump out remittances that prop up Nepal’s economy.
In 2008 – 2009, the labor agencies sucked about $710,000 per day from migrants’ pockets, just for the privilege of toiling in a country where they might earn enough to live on. According to researchers, ‘Of the 150 returnees and prospective migrant workers interviewed for the report, more than 90 per cent of them said that they were deceived by recruitment agencies and brokers on the fundamental aspects of their contract.” These agencies have little oversight, despite labor laws governing migration. Authorities have generally failed to address abuse issues and hold agencies accountable for labor violations.
The report also suggests that, by leaving migrants with no opportunity but to enter into crooked contracts, the whole financial infrastructure of Nepal is also partly to blame:
Even if migrants, while still in Nepal, become aware of the discrepancies between what they were promised and what appears in their contract, it is generally too late to challenge this, as they only receive their contract, passport, work visa and flight ticket days or hours before their departure – frequently at the airport itself. At this point, migrants are usually already too deeply indebted to be able to refuse the job.
This is because the prospective migrants must pay the recruitment fees in advance and the vast majority can only do this by taking out large loans from private individuals at an average annual interest rate of about 35 per cent. This is 150 per cent higher than the maximum acceptable interest charge of 14 per cent, as stipulated by the Government. However, as banks will generally not provide loans to migrants without adequate financial collateral, most prospective migrants have no choice but to accept the exorbitant terms offered by private lenders.
Similar debt systems target the poor around the world (the U.S., where predatory lenders stalk low-income neighborhoods, is no exception). But impoverished Asian migrants are especially vulnerable to multiple barriers of global inequality. With migrants’ fees averaging about $1,400, “recruiters” extract about three times the average 2010 yearly income in Nepal.
Migrants quickly become virtual captives. Amnesty researcher Norma Kang Muico told In These Times:
for many, returning to their home countries was not an option, even though they realised that they had been deceived on their salary amount, job type, overtime pay, and/or rest day.
The social toll of migration often falls hardest on Nepalese women, who make up about 30 percent of transnational migrant workers. Physical, sexual, verbal abuse and threats were reported by many female domestic servants and nearly women trafficked into prostitution.
One woman who had worked in Kuwait said in an interview:
One time the second son told me he loved me and wanted to be with me. When I told him no, he became aggressive and grabbed me but I pushed him away. When the mother saw this, she blamed me and began to beat me.
However, gender-specific regulations imposed by the Nepalese government, ostensibly to “protect” women migrants, has backfired. To get around restrictions on formal migration for female domestic workers, Muico said, “many migrate through irregular channels to work abroad. As a result, female migrant workers face a higher risk of forced labour practices…. Several interviewees told us that they did not go to the Nepalese authorities for help because of their undocumented status.”
Though exploitative labor migration may seem an inevitable byproduct of a vast global inequities, governments can take steps to protect workers who make the journey, in Muico’s view:
In order to address some of the wider issues of poverty and unemployment, sending and receiving countries must both endorse safe migration. If the recruitment process is transparent, that is, migrants are properly trained, receive a contract in Nepali and in advance of travel, and the terms and conditions of their contract are fulfilled, then they are more likely to experience successful migration.
“Successful migration” in today’s economy means at best a chance to return home to start a business or pay a child’s school tuition, and to invest remittances toward leveling out some of the inequality afflicting their communities.
Yet, as relatively prosperous countries deal with financial crisis (or in the case of the Middle East and North Africa, political upheaval), and poverty and corruption continue at home, a cleaner path to migration won’t resolve the long term social struggles in the Global South. Nonetheless, when the state exploits migrants and reaps the profits of the risks they take abroad, they not only forfeit economic sovereignty to the predation of a neoliberal labor market, but they break a social contract with their own citizens.
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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.