A Helsingin Sanomat follow-up series this week of a human trafficking ring operated by some Nepali restaurant owners in Helsinki has created an uproar in Finland, recently named the happiest country in the world. The investigative story by Paavo Teittinen builds on an expose published in this newspaper in January in which a Nepali cook, who uses the pseudonym Maila, mustered the courage to report injustices he faced to Finnish Police. Maila is named ‘Suman’ in the Helsingin Sanomat story since he still wants his identity concealed because of threats after the Nepali Times story came out. Finland’s largest-circulation newspaper has now revealed widespread exploitation of Nepalis by Nepali employers in Finland. The story in this paper had named four Nepalis (Basanta Adhikari, Purna Adhikari, Srijana Ghimire and Ava Pokhrel) who were found guilty by the North Sawo District Court in Finland. They had €227,199 confiscated, were fined for tax fraud and fake accounts, and forced to pay compensation to Maila, and co-workers Kancha and Saila. The main accused got a conditional sentence of one year eight months. Helsingin Sanomat has now gone deeper into the story and exposed how a closely-knit circle of employers brought desperate Nepalis to Finland, and violated Finnish labour laws by under-paying them and evading taxes. After the Nepali Times story came out in January, Maila was threatened and this journalist was cautioned that powerful Nepalis named in the story could retaliate. In fact, this reporter refrained from naming two others, Devi Sharma and Hemraj Sharma, who many Nepali workers had accused of being involved. A Nepali woman brought to Finland as a maid was made to work 24 hours a day in the home and restaurants without proper salary. She complained to Finnish Police after being sexually abused. She had asked this reporter last year not to mention her case, fearing retaliation. Now, Helsingin Sanomat has disclosed that after an investigating lasting two years Helsinki Police suspect the couple Devi and Manju Sharma of trafficking the woman. Both are from Gulmi, and set up the first Nepali restaurants, of which there are now more than 70 all over Finland. Most of these are owned by a handful of Nepalis settled here, mainly from Gulmi. The first Nepali restaurant, Himalaya, was established in Helsinki in 1993 by Devi Sharma who with his wife Manju now also own Lali Gurans, Gurkha and Yeti restaurants. Hemraj Sharma runs Mount Everest restaurant. Maila’s complaint to Police was against Purna Adhikary of another restaurant, Mount Sherpa. During a visit to Helsinki in 2018, cooks and waiters told this reporter of exploitation, threats and slave-like working conditions. But they were afraid of being named because the powerful restaurant owners could have them fired, or even deported. Despite meagre pay, they needed their jobs to pay back loans and send money home to families in Nepal. Many restaurant workers suffer depression, and some have attempted suicide. Sources said up to 2,000 Nepalis have been brought to Finland on work visas in the past 20 years by restaurant owners. Besides flouting Finland’s labour laws, some Nepali restauranteurs are also involved in money laundering and tax evasion. Hemraj Sharma told this reporter during a visit to his Mount Everest restaurant in Helsinki in 2018 that Nepalis were doing well in Finland, and denied that they were involved in anything illegal. However, the Helsingin Sanomat quotes the maid who used to work for Devi Sharma as telling police he under-reported earnings, evaded tax and stashed cash in his house which he regularly sent with Nepalis travelling to Kathmandu. Juha Rekola, the International Ombudsman of the Union of Journalists in Finland, who has frequently visited Nepal to train journalists, says he often dined at the Nepali restaurants mentioned in the Helsingin Sanomat report, but did not notice signs of trafficking or tax evasion. Said Rekola: “When I first read the piece in Nepali Times in January, I thought that it is good that the problem has been uncovered and brought to court. But when Helsingin Sanomat exposed just how widespread it was, I thought, oh no, it cannot be this bad, not in Finland. It hits you worse when you see it in your own language morning paper.” Rekola considers himself a well-wisher of Nepal, and says the blame has to be shared with Finns who ignore warnings that a cheap meal is proof of a grey economy. “Nepali lunches are much cheaper given their quality and size, but people still go there trusting that it is ok,” Rekola adds, “our government has not put enough safeguards in place, making tax evasion easy. Tightened immigration laws also put many people in a vulnerable position to such blackmail.”
As for Maila, he feels vindicated after Finland’s most prestigious newspaper printed the plight of workers like him. “The risk I took by reporting his case to the police has yielded results, and this will help me and other like me,” said Maila, who still has not received the compensation that the court ordered the restaurant owners to give him.
The Helsingin Sanomat report has tarnished the image of Nepal, Nepalis and Nepali restaurants in Finland, and many Finns are said to be in a dilemma about whether to eat in Nepali-owned restaurants or not. On the one hand they want to help Nepal and do not want law-abiding Nepalis to suffer, and on the other they do not want to support traffickers. The Non-Resident Nepali Association of Finland has been accused on social media of protecting powerful restaurant owners, and not helping the exploited workers. In response, the Association’s National Coordination Council released a statement this week saying it had not protected anyone accused of wrong-doing. Asked what is next, Rekola told Nepali Times: “I just hope the genuine Nepali restaurants do not suffer, and the customers return. There should also be closer contact between restaurant owners and their Finnish customers who love Nepal and Nepali food.” Helsingin Sanomat will be putting up an English and Nepali translation of the series by Paavo Teittinen on its digital edition this weekend. (The original text of this story was updated at 10:00 Nepal Time 3 April)