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Nepali migrants watch recovery from afar, some prevented from going home

In earthquake's aftermath, labor advocates call for ‘kafala amnesty’ so workers can return home

For many of the 2 million Nepalese working abroad, the question of how to return home following last Saturday’s massive earthquake is confounding. It’s not merely that phone and Internet have remained down in Kathmandu, or that flights to the country’s only international airport are in short supply. It’s that hundreds of thousands of Nepali laborers may be stuck: tethered to an employment system that deprives them of the right to leave.

Sixty percent of Nepalese migrants are employed in construction and domestic work in Arab Gulf countries, where — under the employment-sponsorship system called “kafala” in Arabic — they are wholly dependent on their employers and vulnerable to labor and immigration abuses.

This week the International Confederation of Trade Unions (ITUC) sent letters to the labor ministers of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar demanding a “kafala amnesty” that would give Nepalese workers “the choice to leave the country … or temporarily return home for funerals,” with guarantees of bereavement pay, benefits and job security. These governments have not responded to the ITUC, the organization said, or to requests for comment on this article. 

Over the past decade, high-profile development projects in the Middle East — such as World Cup stadiums in Qatar, and Guggenheim, Louvre and New York University outposts in the UAE — have provoked criticism of regional labor conditions. Monitoring organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) has reported that employers across the Gulf routinely refuse to pay wages, suppress organizing efforts, confiscate workers’ passports, withhold exit visas and house laborers in unsanitary, decrepit dormitories. And Nepalese workers often face the worst of the exploitation: A longtime activist in the Middle East (who asked to remain anonymous out of safety concerns) said that, whereas Filipino construction workers are paid a minimum of approximately $400 per month, their Nepalese peers are paid less than $250. Nepalese workers in the Gulf could not be reached for comment on those figures in time for publication.

The combination of low wages and restricted travel creates an agonizing dilemma for many wishing to return home after the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that killed thousands of people in Nepal. In Qatar, where an estimated 400,000 Nepali men and women work, “the passports just disappear, so that takes away the physical possibility for them to go home,” said Nicholas McGeehan, HRW researcher on Bahrain, Qatar and UAE. He added that similar conditions exist in Bahrain and Kuwait, and that “most workers don’t have a significant bundle of cash lying around” for a flight back.

Despite their grief, exacerbated by distance, overseas Nepalese workers may simply focus on sending money home. In 2013–14, Nepali migrants around the world contributed over $4 billion in remittances­ nearly 30 percent of the country’s gross domestic product — according to the International Labor Organization. If the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami provide any indication, remittances are likely to increase as the recovery effort proceeds (PDF). There’s no shortage of need in Kathmandu and beyond: Approximately 5,500 people are dead, and damage estimates are approaching $1 billion.

This level of devastation has led two U.S. congressmen to introduce a bill giving some Nepalese nationals Temporary Protected Status (or TPS), an extension of nonimmigrant residency status, for 18 months. Adhikaar (meaning “rights”), the largest Nepali community group in New York City, has fielded calls about this legislation and advised its membership of low-wage workers to stay put for now.

“Once we get out of relief and into recovery work, I think people should be able to go home,” said Luna Ranjit, Adhikaar’s executive director. Members are currently focused on calling relatives and sending money through the usual channels: Western Union, as well as IME Remit and Prabhu Money Transfer, companies popular with the city’s growing Nepalese population.

It’s not just individual workers who should be contributing, the ITUC says. In addition to calling for kafala amnesty, the international labor group has asked the Gulf’s top “receiving” nations to provide financial assistance to Nepal. “The total figure to rebuild Nepal is something like 10 days of Qatar’s GDP,” said Tim Noonan, director of campaigns and communications at the ITUC. “We think it’s incumbent on the three countries to make a massive effort and to repay the debt they owe the Nepali people.”

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