The only reason Nepal hasn't turned into a failed state is because millions of young people from this country are sending money home from India, the Gulf or Malaysia. The latest World Bank survey shows Nepal's poverty rate has declined, the macro-economic situation looks healthy and remittances are pumping money directly into the countryside.
But the state's apathy towards the welfare of migrant workers is despicable. The rot starts right at the top. Last week a minister sacked the head of the Foreign Employment Department who was trying to stop kickbacks and punish fraudulent recruiters.
An increasing number of young Nepali women are now going abroad, and already one-third of migrant workers are estimated to be women. Most work as domestics, are unregistered and outside the purview of legal and state protection when they face abuse by employers.
At Pourakhi, an organisation set up by returned women migrant workers themselves, there isn't a day that goes by without one raped or battered woman being brought from the airport to the shelter. Most have been so brutally tortured, they return with bruises, broken bones, teeth knocked out, or so emotionally scarred that they are unable to speak.
Others are victims of financial exploitation, made to work 21 hours a day with very little food and in dire conditions. Yet year after year, despite the publicity these stories garner, Nepali women continue to travel to India and the Gulf to work as domestics, caregivers and nurses. It is their blood and sweat that has kept the country afloat, but the state couldn't care less about their welfare.
"We wish the government could stop women from going to these unsafe places altogether but they are desperate and the government has nothing to offer," Bijaya Rai Shrestha of Pourakhi told me. "The best thing is to ensure that women go through legal channels, because they will go anyway. Undocumented workers are the most vulnerable to exploitation and have problems getting compensation."
It is almost always the same story. Poverty, domestic violence, and a lack of opportunities drive women to approach unscrupulous recruiters. They sell land, or take loans at high interest rates to go to countries of which they know little, with no skills or language. Upon arrival, their passports and visas are confiscated and they are made to work like slaves. Many women come back with babies fathered by employers, hundreds are languishing in jail after being raped, and an unreported number take their own lives as a last refuge.
The government says it lacks resources to control the exploitation of Nepali women by Nepalis themselves. Nepal doesn't have an embassy or adequate staff in many countries, and diplomats are undermotivated or do not know how to negotiate with Kuwaiti or Saudi officials.
In the last four months, Purna Chandra Bhattarai, the new director general of the Foreign Employment Department tried to clean things up. He had sanctioned Rs 40 million in compensation to wronged workers, took action against errant recruiters and refused to register agencies that did not fulfill minimum standards. This was the first time someone tried to do such a thing in a department known for corruption and exploitation. But under pressure from the 'manpower mafia', Labour Minister Sarita Giri unceremoniously removed Bhattarai last week.
There may be few things beyond our control, but the government could easily pressure the minister to leave honest civil servants like Bhattarai alone. It could sign MOUs with safer destinations for domestic workers like Hong Kong and Singapore, train them in household skills and language before they leave, offer them safeguards and insurance. It could ratify ILO Convention 189 to protect the rights of domestic workers.
What is stopping the government from ensuring something as simple as providing workers with contract papers in Nepali? We complain about abuse abroad, but the exploitation starts here. If only the state made sure that the provisions of the Foreign Employment Act are strictly enforced, there would be a huge improvement in the condition of migrant workers.
All migrant workers should be compulsorily given pre-departure orientation, recruiters who charge more than the government's upper limit as service charge or do not fulfil the conditions of work contracts should be punished, Nepali embassies abroad should be more accountable and better able to come to the help of those stranded.
This is the least the government can do for women like Bhagwati (see box) who would have never left if they could earn few thousands in the country itself.
"Lucky to be alive"
Madhu Biswokarma, left for Saudi Arabia in hopes of a better future but has come back with scars all over her body and face. She was brutally beaten by her employers, who knocked off her teeth, banged her head with pointed heels and cut her with shards of broken glass.
In 2009, nine Nepali women committed suicide during a nine month period in Lebanon alone. Returnees brought back horror stories of abuse and exploitation. But when asked if they would go back, most will say they have no choice and hope they get better employers next time.
Parbati Tamang was tortured by her employers till she agreed to convert to Islam. Upon returning from Saudi Arabia, her family refused to accept a Muslim into the house.
(Some names of women have been changed.)
Update: Labour Minister Sarita Giri has been removed by the prime minister over her
alleged involvement in corruption. Click here for more.
Womanpower, RUBEENA MAHATO
Migration should be a choice, not a compulsion