Labour recruiter netted in sting raid

It was a chilly 5:30 in the evening of 22 December, and a team from Nepal’s Department of Foreign Employment (DOFE) was staking out the overseas job recruitment agency, Manaslu, in Kathmandu’s Dhumbarahi neighbourhood.

Two Nepali migrant workers, Dambar Karki and Sailendra Singh, were inside making payments that had been demanded for jobs in Saudi Arabia. What the management at Manaslu did not know was that it was all a setup, and part of a sting operation.

Earlier that day, a distraught Karki and Singh had showed up at DOFE to file a complaint. The recruiter had told them before the pandemic that they would have to pay Rs80,000 each for their job placements as coffeemakers in Saudi Arabia.

The Covid-19 crisis brought overseas contract work to a halt for 10 months, but placements are opening up again. After Karki and Singh were done with their paperwork and had finally got the government’s labour approvals, Manaslu demanded Rs110,000 each as fee.

The two reached out to a nearby police station, and were told to file a complaint at DOFE. There, officials decided to organise a sting operation. Legally, recruiters are only allowed to charge Rs10,000 as fee for an overseas job placement.

The sting team matching the planted bank notes with the cash retrieved from the recruiter in an evening raid on Tuesday.

At Dhumbarahi on Tuesday evening, the DOFE officials finally got a call from one of the migrants inside, indicating that they had handed over the money to the recruiters and it was all right for them to enter. The raiding team rushed in, ordered the security guard to shut the gates and caught Manaslu’s management red-handed with the money.

The DOFE team had already made photocopies of all the bank notes that Karki and Singh were handing over to the recruiters. The officials found that the numbers on the planted money matched the cash that was retrieved from the recruiter’s drawer.

The case was documented in the presence of Manaslu management, and signatures obtained. Staff at the recruitment agency looked shocked, and admitted that in their 20 years in the business this was the first time something like this had happened.

The owners were summoned to DOFE the next morning. They will now be required to send the migrants to Saudi Arabia at the legally allowed fee of Rs10,000, and their activities will be suspended for up to a maximum of six months until the case is fully resolved.

To cope with similar complaints of extortion like this, DOFE has set up a well-equipped and trained sting unit to monitor illegal over-charging and gouging of desperate migrant workers. Their operations range from regular monitoring, surprise inspections, or just like in this case, sting operations that can take place at any time and day based on complaints received.

The DOFE Sting Team after the raid in the Dhumbarahi neighbourhood of Kathmandu.

“In institutional cases like this one, it is much easier to take action and hold perpetrators accountable because there is paperwork involved and recruiters have deposited escrow amounts,” explains DOFE Director General Kumar Dahal. “It is when individuals mislead migrants that things get trickier as there is no proof, and the perpetrators are not in our records.”

Dahal says there are many cases like the one this week where innocent migrants are taken advantage of in the name of foreign employment. With the backlog of workers and economic desperation due to the pandemic, such extortion is likely to increase.

The DOFE Monitoring Team is led by Section Officer Kushal Baral, and he has taken part in 11 sting raids like this in the past month. One of those was the DOFE raids in November of three companies (SOS Manpower Services, DD Human Resources and Hope International) for conducting interviews without permission for jobs in the Qatar Police.

DOFE also raided 4 companies (Sky Blue International, Om Overseas, Surkhet Overseas and H.M.T. Overseas) that have been misusing visit visas to send workers to the UAE. All the companies have been ordered to suspend activities while investigations are ongoing.

In addition to the Monitoring Section that conducts the sting operations, there is also a separate Complaint Section at DOFE that has blocked activities of recruiters engaged in unethical practices.

DOFE agents had photocopied all the bank notes that the two migrant workers used to pay the illegal fees to the recruiter for job placements in Saudi Arabia.

While workers who are cheated can lodge complaints via the DOFE phone or through social media, most migrants usually report in person at the DOFE office, especially when they are overcharged by recruiters. The financial exchanges take place at the last moment before the flight, so migrants are usually in Kathmandu and in-person complaints are easier, says Baral.

But recruiters who are embroiled in unhealthy competition, also lodge complaints against each other about illegal activities such as conducting interviews for overseas work without obtaining permits.

“There is a general sense of hopelessness among migrant workers that lodging complaints with agencies like DOFE will not yield results. So, they feel it is not worth turning recruiters into enemies,” says Baral, adding that he hopes the recent raids will encourage more migrants to come forward with complaints.

He says, “It is only when they share information with us, preferably while they are still in Nepal, that we will be able to take corrective actions.”

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