Between home and the deep blue sea

All photos courtesy: PRAKASH GURUNG

This 7th instalment of Diaspora Diaries is timed with the World Day for Safety in the Workplace and 1 May Labour Day.

I worked overseas in Qatar for 13 years as a safety adviser in an oil and gas company followed by two years in the UAE. The Gulf states are rich because of their oil reserves, but as an employee for many years in this sector with direct experience, I was able to develop a unique understanding of this business.

The company I worked for produced 500,000 barrels of crude oil per day. I was stationed on an off-shore rig in the Persian Gulf, and this was a high-risk, high-reward job. Offshore assignment is organised around a unique work-leave schedule in which I was on duty for six weeks, and got paid home leave for six weeks after that.

During the 54 days of work on the rig, we did not even have a single day off, and being in the middle of the sea was mentally taxing at times. We did not get to see the land at all, except on very clear days when we could make out the brown hills of the Iranian coast far away. Gazing at land through binoculars was a source of entertainment and comfort during those six sea-bound weeks.

Despite the risks, the job was a sweet deal because it gave me the best of both worlds: to work in Qatar with higher pay but without losing touch with my family whom I got to be with every other month.

This was a blessing because I knew my Nepali compatriots in Qatar were unable to see their families for years on end, and missed all important milestones in their children’s lives.

As safety adviser, my job was to ensure that workers on the offshore rig were safe. The safety protocols in the oil drilling business are very strict, since even a small mistake can cost lives and cause damage worth millions of dollars.

Read also: Diaspora Diaries 1, Nepali Times

Just as an example, we were required to wear H2S gas detectors at all times in case there was a leakage, which could be instantly lethal. There were many other precautions that always kept us on our toes. And we had a persistent and gnawing fear about things that could possibly go wrong. It is a kind of fear that I was not used to, and had never felt before.

When you are on land, there are many escape routes in case of fire. But in case of an emergency in an off-shore rig, with only the horizon in all directions, our sole option is to jump off the rig into the shark infested sea.

Thankfully, there were life boats, rafts and helicopters on standby for rescue if something did go wrong.

Even then, I cannot explain the rush of relief I used to feel at the end of every six weeks when we were choppered out of the helipad to shore, and on to Nepal to be with the family. Six weeks later, we had to be back, and I used to whisper a little prayer before boarding the helicopter that would drop me back on the rig again.

For 13 long years, my life was a cycle every 54 days that alternated between the longest six weeks on the oil rig that felt like eternity, and the shortest six weeks in Nepal that went by in the blink of an eye.

A big part of my job entailed training workers to be safe, but it was difficult to guarantee that they implemented all that was being taught. As workers, it is natural for many to look for shortcuts, but in this sector, shortcuts can cost lives.

So, I tried to use as many personal stories as possible to humanise the consequence of such accidents that are common in the oil business. Showing a picture of someone’s daughter unable to hold her father’s fingers who lost them during a workplace injury communicated the need for precautions more than me giving a dry lecture, for example.

The kind of risks rig workers including Nepalis had to take such as balancing high on off-shore scaffolding were beyond comprehension. But I am grateful that during my time as a safety adviser, there were no fatalities in the projects I oversaw.

Read also: Diaspora Diaries 2, Nepali Times

I never thought I would apply for a job in Qatar given my educational background. I had dreams of going to a Western country, until I got cheated by an agent who had promised to send me to America and fleeced me of Rs700,000.

It was completely by chance that I was interviewed for a safety officer job in the Gulf by a European company that showed promise for professional growth and good earnings. That was what led me down this career path.

That is when I realised that I had misunderstood that earnings in the West would be more. I was actually paid more in Qatar than I would have been able to earn elsewhere, and I could also save more because accommodation and food were covered, and there were no taxes.

Read also: Diaspora Diaries 3, Nepali Times

We Nepalis have still not been able to take up the higher paying jobs in the Gulf which are dominated by Filipinos and Indians, among others. We see the Gulf just as a place offering low-salaried jobs and start primarily as helpers.

There are many missed opportunities we could be benefiting from. But there are increasing numbers of Nepalis who are earning handsome amounts and serve in key positions in the Gulf.  Over the course of my stay abroad, I must have remitted back to Nepal Rs50 million or more. I am really proud of this, especially given my humble beginnings in Lamjung.

However, I have not been able to use my skills and experience after I returned, although I am sure it would have a lot of use in Nepal. As someone who has amassed so much experience as a safety officer, I saw  red flags everywhere on my return -- at Kathmandu airport, along the roads, at construction sites, in ongoing infrastructure projects, and even within homes.

Read also: The Qatar job mirage, Nepali Times

And yet, there is no space for those of us with the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) skills to use the knowledge we have gained to address these lapses. I have seen my friends who have similar experience as me from the Gulf in occupational safety and health topics fail in their attempts to do something in this sector both individually and collectively in Nepal after their return.

There is a clear need for these skills and knowledge in our country but the recognition and ability to utilise them are missing. Meanwhile, these very skills have been instrumental in contributing to the rapid transformation of countries like the UAE and Qatar.

I have instead resorted to starting an agriculture business in Nepal where there is space to intervene even though it is not exactly my area of expertise -- I have started a cold storage with a capacity of 18 tonnes.

I buy produce from farmers in Dolakha, Ramechhap, Bhaktapur and sell the produce at better market rates during the off season. I also provide higher prices to farmers who otherwise are compelled to sell their produce at lower rates out of fear of them getting spoiled.

Back home in Nepal after 13 years, Gurung has not been able to use the skills and experience he gained in the Gulf, but has invested his savings in an agriculture business and refrigerated warehouse on the outskirts of Kathmandu. 

Both my experiences here and in the Gulf allowed me to directly interact with workers engaged in back-breaking work and to look for ways to minimise the risks they face, albeit very different kinds of dangers. The financial rewards are indeed better abroad than here where many struggle to even make ends meet.

But I cannot also help notice the overall contentment in the faces of farmers here in Nepal, which they seem to lose when we are in the Gulf away from family, toiling in the heat. We turn ourselves into income generating machines with a singular purpose of maximising our earnings during our stay abroad.

It is as if the desert heat sucks the life out of the workers, many of whom lack proper nutrition and adequate sleep. It is also evident that regardless of the location, it is always the most hard-working individuals engaged in back-breaking, strenuous jobs who are compensated the least while being employed in the riskiest jobs.

Read more: Fate joins, then separates, siblings, Anil Shrestha

Translated from a conversation in Nepali with Prakash Gurung. 

Diaspora Diaries is a regular column in Nepali Times providing a platform to share experiences of living, working, studying abroad. Authentic and original entries can be sent to [email protected] with Diaspora Diaries in the subject line.