Too hot to work

The COP28 Climate Summit in Dubai spotlights working conditions for Nepali migrant workers

Between mid-June and mid-October alone, almost 37,500 Nepalis left for the UAE for jobs, placing it among the top destination countries.

Many of these workers will likely be engaged in the delivery of the COP28 Climate Summit that will ironically be held in the UAE, the world’s fifth biggest exporter of refined petroleum, with the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) service as conference president. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal will lead the Nepali delegation.Migrant workers form 88% of the UAE population, so one cannot talk about COP28 or the UAE by ignoring migration. For Nepal, too, the climate crisis and the migration economy are linked.New research by Human Rights Watch (HRW) states that the COP28 host’s role in climate injustice goes beyond it being one of the largest fossil fuel producers and among the highest per capita emitters. It also relates to its treatment of migrant workers.

HRW interviewed 151 current and former migrant workers and their families from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal. Despite negligible per capita greenhouse gas emissions, the three countries are among the most climate vulnerable and have suffered extreme weather and slow-onset events linked to climate change. 

The climate impact countries like Nepal face should also be considered from the perspective of their mobile populations in the UAE and other countries. Migrant workers are exposed to extreme heat with inadequate protection, and because widespread abuse like wage theft and exorbitant recruitment fees limit the ability of workers to send home remittances, including during climate-linked emergencies.

Dubai’s maximum temperature on some days exceeded 50 Celsius this summer, and the UAE itself is vulnerable to heat stress due to atmospheric warming.The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said that the Gulf states’ wet bulb globe temperature (WBGT) is ‘expected to approach, and possibly exceed, the physiological threshold for human adaptability (35°C) by the end of the century’. Migrant workers, including Nepalis, are disproportionately exposed.The most common heat mitigation strategy used in the Gulf including the UAE are ‘summer midday bans’ that stop outdoor work in the afternoons for a few hours. But a study in Kuwait found that despite the ban there was a substantial increase in the risk of occupational injuries associated with extremely hot temperatures. Another study found that the highest heat intensity for workers in Saudi Arabia was from 9 am to noon, while the ban is in effect between noon and 3 pm.

HRW’s research recommends that the UAE move away from arbitrary, calendar-based midday bans towards risk-based measures such as the WBGT. 

Heat is a health hazard. It can exacerbate pre-existing conditions, impair cognitive function, and increase the risk of workplace injuries and long-term illnesses like end-stage renal failures. Dialysis rooms across Nepal that are filled with Gulf returnees.  

HRW’s research follows three dialysis patients who are all UAE returnees describing how they did not get support from the UAE. The Nepal government provides dialysis for free, but the cost of medicines, injections, and transportation add up.

Chitrakala, the wife of a dialysis patient, Til, who accompanies him to the hospital multiple times a week for his dialysis says, “In some ways, I find it comforting to be at the hospital because in the waiting room, I realise I am not alone. It is not just my family that is facing this.” 

Another UAE returnee, Purna, says it is after he frequented the dialysis centre that he realised that kidney failure is common among migrant worker returnees. The situation will worsen in a changing climate.

“The UAE is externalising their own climate risks onto migrant workers who are labouring under woefully inadequate protections. These workers often experience chronic health harms linked to extreme heat, and then return home without any compensation from the UAE and instead let countries like Nepal bear all the serious health costs like dialysis treatment,” says Michael Page of HRW.

COP28 and migtants NT

There are other labour abuses like wage theft and exorbitant recruitment fees that also contribute to climate injustice, the HRW report argues. Climate emergencies back home exacerbate the mental stress of wage theft and recruitment debt as families in Nepal are in increasingly dire and even life-threatening situations. 

Workers HRW spoke to who were unable to send remittances because of labour abuses spoke of the dilemma they face: their families lose both critical financial support and the help they could have provided for urgent tasks like rebuilding damaged property had they stayed home.

But for many, even exiting the UAE with outstanding recruitment debts or unpaid wages during such climate emergencies posed a challenge. Workers had to pay fees to retrieve their passports including by obtaining ‘reverse remittances’ on loan from families back home already reeling from life-threatening climate emergencies.

Good migration can be transformative, but bad migration can be devastating for families. To be sure, remittances have been critical for economies of Nepal and other South Asian countries, but they do not substitute their responsibility. Historical and major greenhouse gas emitters also have a duty to support communities heavily impacted by the climate crisis.

Remittances are equivalent to a quarter of Nepal’s GDP, while Pakistan and Bangladesh are among the top 10 remittance recipients globally. Remittances have also been a lifeline including post-earthquake and during Covid. But these numbers mask the individual experiences of migrant workers and their families who face abuses and many of whom end up in financially worse situations than they did pre-migration.

Virtually all migrant workers pay hefty fees for jobs which itself creates a huge dent on the returns to migration while excluding some of the poorest communities from even attempting to migrate. But even that does not guarantee a good job.

The July 2021 Melamchi flood was a climate-induced disaster in Nepal, and one of its victims told HRW researchers: “During the flood, all we wanted was to save our lives. We survived, but we lost everything. The flood finished us.”His wife is headed to the UAE for a waitressing job which cost her Rs  200,000, and borrowed at 24% annual interest. If all goes well, her first year’s salary of a mere $262 a month will just go to repay the loan.

Another Sindhupalchok returnee from the UAE said, “Whether climate change or not, we have to migrate. We used to be self-sufficient but now have to buy food. Yields are lower. Insects and diseases are more common.”

Climate change can be a compounding factor for longstanding emigration such as from Nepal to the Gulf, and adds to the burden of past, present and future migrant workers.

The UAE is also being criticized for its restrictions on civil society and free expression during COP28. The HRW research states these affect migrant workers by limiting their ability to raise workplace concerns and seek structural, worker-centered reforms. The government’s opacity around health data hampers research for evidence-based policymaking including for better outdoor protections, while academics and journalists tend to self-censor to avoid reprisals.

At the COP 28 in Dubai, Prime Minister Dahal would do well to dwell on the links between the host country and increasing climate vulnerability that Nepalis face both at home from weather extremes and heat stress at their workplaces in the UAE.

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