Landlocked Nepalis sail the seven seas
saroj KC’s first memory as a crew member in a cruise liner was being awestruck at the sight of a humongous multi-level ship docked in the Guangzou port in China.
The mammoth 17-decked ship, with an accommodation for 7,000 people, was going to be his home for the next nine months as he worked in the galley.
Once on board, he recalls that the scale inside did not match what he saw outside. The corridors in the crew area, set aside for crewmen, were narrow and maze-like while the identical worker cabins were tiny. He felt claustrophobic and lost, with no sense of direction to navigate his way around the vessel.
By 2020, his memory on the ship was a stark contrast to his first, as he was stuck in a passenger-less ship for four and a half months, docked in a port in Malaysia. With no passengers on board, crew members were given access to the whole ship and he enjoyed the privileges previously reserved for guests--larger rooms with balconies, relaxed hours, amenities and good company.
As he waited to return home, he found comfort in having access to free wifi. “Internet usually is expensive, we have to pay around 14 Singapore dollars for 1 GB, so we are cautious about what we stream. But during the lockdown, we were provided free wifi which was great as we got to keep in constant touch with our families and stream movies during the lull hours,” KC recalls.
The sea, the sea
The $150 billion global cruise industry was severely impacted by Covid-19. Prior to the pandemic, passenger volume in 2020 was estimated to grow to 32 million, compared to 26.7 million in 2017 and 17.8 million in 2009. A 2018 report shows that the industry created 1,177,000 jobs and catered to 28.5 million passengers.
KC is one of the thousands of Nepalis who make their livelihood at sea, alongside Filipinos, Indians and Indonesians, who dominate the industry. Now in Kathmandu, he is waiting for things to normalise so he can resume his job.
Compared to other land-based overseas jobs, KC found the work arrangement at his sea job unique and attractive. Each contract lasts between 7-9 months, after which they get to come home for a long vacation of around 45 days.
“But while you are on the job, the work is highly demanding. There are no weekly days off and the pressure can be quite overwhelming,” he says.
Cruise companies have a notorious reputation for registering companies in countries like Panama and Liberia under a practice called ‘flag of convenience’ which reduced operating costs, allow for tax evasion, more lax labour and environmental standards.
But migrants we spoke to compared employment terms relative to existing options at home or in other land-based jobs.
The pay is comparatively better in the industry, while the crew members’ entertainment is prioritised via game rooms, and crew bars and the food and living costs are taken care of. And there is the travel opportunity.
“In 9 months, I was able to see over 40 countries including France and Italy,” says Bijaya Ranjit, who was always fascinated by Fewa Lake in Pokhara, the largest body of water she saw while growing up. “It is exciting and you don’t want to miss a thing because who knows whether you will ever get to see these places again?”
She says when the cruise starts docking in the same ports repeatedly, however, the fascination with touristic sites dissipates.
Currently unsure when she can resume her work at sea, Ranjit is hopeful for a 2022 revival. This time around, she is hoping her seafaring adventures will take her to places like Australia and Canada where she has not yet been.
The high-profile outbreak on cruise vessels including the Diamond Princess cruiseship with 700 positive cases on board and 13 deaths cost the industry its reputation. A year later, major cruise companies are again reporting strong booking for the second half of 2021. This bodes well for Nepali seafarers like Bijaya Ranjit who is anxiously waiting to resume her job.
“The ship offers many opportunities for personal growth if we are able to seize them," she says. "I focused on soft skills like language training. To survive the monotony and the grind, you have to be able to make light of the dreary days at sea and to find solace in the company of your on-deck peers who become like family.”
Dipendra Thapa has been working in the cruise line since 2006, and has visited 70 cities in the last 14 years. His previous jobs at five star restaurants in Nepal prepared him well for his stint on the cruise. When Covid-19 hit, his ship made its way back to Italy, the primary port, where he was stranded for a few months.
“There is a world of its own inside the ship and we made use of it as we waited to go home,” he recalls. But once the cases started rising in Italy, crew members were isolated in single passenger cabins in the ship.
“Of course we were nervous and uncertain but my employer took the best care of us given the situation,” says Thapa, who was repatriated via Qatar after a month of being isolated in single rooms with support from the Nepali mission in Geneva. In addition to the ticket costs, the quarantine costs in Kathmandu were also covered by the employer.
He is grateful to his employer, who has been in touch with him to enquire about the ongoing situation, but equally grateful to the guests on the ship who have given him a different take on life.
“I have spoken to guests for whom a cruise was a dream for which they saved for many years. Not all our guests are rich. It is a luxury and a dream for many,” he says
He is hopeful that things will normalise soon, even though there is much uncertainty about what awaits. “And just because we are landlocked does not mean we shouldn’t exploit sea-based opportunities,” he says.
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Anchored to their jobs
Of the 853 recruiters in Nepal, only two specialise in seafarer deployment, while a few others handle both land and sea-based workers.
Bhakta Bahadur Payangu at Good Alliance Overseas, has recruited over 2,000 seafarers in the last decade, and estimates around 7,000 Nepali workers are working in the maritime industry.
Payangu's challenges as a recruiter is to ensure the seafarers sector is recognised by the government before he can put Nepalis in the cruise companies’ radar since it requires more specific attention.
In destination countries, visa rules to seafarers are very flexible as the governments realise that they are only arriving for transit to use the port, so a large majority of the countries allow visas on arrival. But Nepal’s rules for obtaining the mandatory labour permit requires visas as a prerequisite.
“Since years, we have tried to convince the government to accept 'okay-to-board' letters in lieu of visas for seafarers. They have become more flexible in the last few years,” says Payangu.
A specific directive that addresses the peculiarities of this sector covering orientation, training and labour approval process have been pointed out by recruiters. Penetrating this market is equally challenging as Nepal already is at a disadvantage given its landlocked status and geographical constraints.
“Workers do not leave the contracts once they get the job so opportunities for new workers can be limited. Many workers stay until they retire because there isn’t really a reason to leave,” he explains. Nepal has not been able to leverage the available opportunities.
Nepali workers don’t have basic English language skills. There are more options for security guards, housekeeping and food and beverage if there were more skilled Nepalis, says Payangu.
"We also need the administrative process to be made simpler. Employers don’t have a reason to tolerate the delays in worker deployment from Nepal due to administrative hassles if they can get a Filipino within days,” says Payangu.
“As a recruiter, I can sleep better when I can send maritime workers because cases of abuse, non-payment of wages, contract infringement, is very low,” he says.
Those who have worked at sea also emphasise the skills factor, highlighting especially the need for English language proficiency.
“There are a lot of opportunities but my advice to incoming Nepalis is to have a longer time horizon. They may manage to get in without basic skills like English language with the help of intermediaries and by paying high recruitment costs, but this will work against them once they are on the ship." says Dipendra Thapa.
There is also the issue of obtaining seaman's logbook, which is a mandatory requirement that records seafaring experiences. Nepalis currently have to obtain it from India. In 2018, Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali announced that seamen’s logbook would be issued in Nepal itself. But since it has not materialised, workers are compelled to obtain it from the Indian government, meaning Nepal is also losing out on the revenue.
Training institutes are cropping up in Nepal that provide the mandatory certification required prior to obtaining the seaman's logbook. The 14 day course covers fire-fighting, first aid, personal survival skills, personal safety and social responsibility and security training for seafarers and designated security duties.
The completion of the course comes with the Standard Training Certification, followed by logbooks to be obtained from India. Uptake, however, is still low, says Pawan Thapa, training director at Universal Maritime Institute.
Kamal Subedee, an alumni of the institute says that the training is helpful for those who are unfamiliar with the environment onboard ocean-going ships.
“There is not much time to adjust to the completely unfamiliar context and the ship-lingo, even for someone like me who had previously worked for a decade in the UAE in the hotel line,” he says. "The training period helps me, because the minute you embark it is go-time. Being at sea also keeps you alert as you are unsure about what could happen because you are always moving in the middle of nowhere. Safety skills under your belt do make you feel a little more confident and assured.”
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Life at sea
Sunil Khadka started as a busboy in a ship and moved up the ladder to become a supervisor. He is hopeful that Nepalis, who are a minority in the industry, performing well in their designated jobs can influence employer perceptions leading to increase in hiring.
There have been cases where Nepalis have jumped off ships disappearing into different countries, denting the general reputation. “We tend to underestimate how high costs of living are and the challenges of being in a foreign country without the right paperwork,” he says.
Living on a ship is also lucrative because there are few expenses. An entry level person like a busboy can easily save up to Rs100,000 every month, while visiting family after every few months on employers’ costs. This is much better than Nepalis with land-based jobs in Malaysia or the Gulf.
“What you earn, you keep, unless you want to spend on travels. And all this while you get to see the world,” Khadka smiles, as he recounts serving Hollywood star Johnny Depp, attending a live Bon Jovi concert and watching WWE fights on deck, “Even the richest among us would not be able to enjoy all this, would they?”
The downside of being on the ship for many is that the internet is not free. During emergencies, this can be a problem. For Khadka, it was three days after his father had passed away that he learned about it.
“The short contracts also means once you return from vacation, you may get placed in any ship. It takes time to build rapport, to understand the dynamics in the ship and the team around you so having to redo that all over again every time can be a bit cumbersome,” he explains.
Khadka intends to do this job as long he can, after which he wants to leverage his experience to help produce well-trained seamen in Nepal, “I am well qualified to be able to do that, but the environment in Nepal should allow it.”
To produce a qualified seaman, Nepal needs institutions providing complementary roles including training and recruiters specialised in maritime jobs. For now, he is waiting until his employer gets a green signal on Covid-19 from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to resume operations.
The voices of the small volume of seafarers stranded last year after the Covid-19 outbreak got lost during the repatriation mess. While they were taken care of by the employers, the majority, however, were not paid wages during the time they were stranded in quarantine.
Scattered across the globe, they have diverse experiences of homecoming, given the variation in the lockdown rules, docking permissions, travel restrictions, docking space and disembarkment rules.
Jayaram Bhandari, for example, was in Miami at the onset of the pandemic. On the ship that brought him home, he first spent 12 days in Italy, then the ship traveled to Sri Lanka to drop off workers from there, and then to India. But given the border restrictions and the suspension of flights, the ship had to be again taken to the Philippines for the 82 Nepalis to be flown home via the government’s repatriation flights.
Deepak GC was in the UAE when he interviewed for a seafarer job as a chef. He returned to Nepal, trained and had a joining date of 12 March, 2020 in South Africa. His peers whose home port was in Europe had their flights canceled and Deepak felt lucky to fly to South Africa, unbeknownst to him that the next few months were going to be some of the worst months in his life.
Dipendra Thapa has been working in the cruise line since 2006
“It was my first week on the job when we were informed that the cruise was being stopped," he says. "Of the five Nepalis on board, two had a return flight for the 20th and 3 of us for the 21st. They made it just in time, whereas the three of us didn’t because the lockdown in Nepal had begun. What a difference one day can make.”
After getting paid for eight days of work, he spent the next six months in Durban, his home port. They started with 400 crewmembers from over 60 countries. 3 hotels and 6 months later, the three Nepalis were the only nationalities left as all other governments repatriated their citizens.
“This is when we realised there is no one for us. Earlier, it was easy to find consolation that we were not the only ones and we were all in this together but by the end when it was just the Nepalis left,” he says.
It is only on 12 September, after six months, that they finally got to come home. Deepak recalls meeting his brother and sister-in-law in the holding center in Surkhet and tears rolling down his cheeks. “I wasn’t sure if it was because I was tired, relieved…perhaps it was a mixture of all those emotions.”
Deepak GC passes time while waiting to return home.
By the end of the five month wait, he ended up losing money given the recuritment costs he was not about to recoup and the months of unemployment. When Nepali Times met him last week, he had just completed his mandatory pre-departure orientation training required to obtain labour approval. “I am going back to the UAE and rejoining my old employer as I cannot afford to wait any longer.”
Not for everyone
But there are those like Sangam Gopali who speak highly of the opportunity, especially the travel-and-work deal. “On the ship itself, I got an opportunity to cross-train to move to retail from the kitchen, and such flexibility is very much needed when you are in that high-pressure, highly-isolated environment. I am now waiting for opportunities to open up in other companies so I can travel to the Caribbean and Europe, I have seen enough of Asia,” he says.
Gopali recalls the first three months of his time at sea being difficult, especially adapting to sea-sickness and a weird sensation of being in constant motion. Over time, he got used to it, even the rough seas.
“Being in the vessel teaches you lessons," he says. “To be able to deal with loneliness, to better understand people around you, and to work hard every day and to maintain discipline. This job is not for the feeble hearted."
Unlike many others who stayed, Rabi Raj Ranjit returned after the first nine months even though the earnings were attractive. He felt worn out.
“The grind turns you into a machine, without guaranteeing a secure future as there are no opportunities for citizenship, you continuously renew your contract every year," he says.
Ranjit says that no matter how beautiful the places he visited were, he felt like he could never become a part of it. "You are a mere spectator with a few hours to spare to make mechanical visits while worrying about making it back on time for your duty, rushing through the must-go places without taking in the culture and the surroundings.”
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He did not enjoy his tiny windowless cabin, or the same trips. In a way, you were always on the move but never really going anywhere, just moving in circles and reaching the same ports every few days.
“I remember being woken up to the sound of the drawers of my closet opening and closing in the night when the sea was rough. The crew cabins are under sea-level, and the waves were loud at night.”
Ranjit missed his motorcycle and being on the road and so returned for good after his first contract was over. On the positive side of the job, he says that one was always on the move. Even so, the sea was not for him.