Nepali workers overseas toil through the pandemic

Photo: Pattabi Raman

Many Nepalis abroad who were working in jobs considered ‘unskilled’ are actually doing indispensable work for the countries they are in — even during COVID-19 lockdowns.

Many of their jobs entail exposure to a large number of people of varying backgrounds, making social distancing unfeasible. These ‘elementary’ jobs  are physically demanding, but low paying with high recruitment costs, without adequate protection, and in sectors of the economy in which locals do not want to work.

Rama is a Nepali domestic worker in Lebanon. Her brother is a construction worker in Saudi Arabia. The coronavirus pandemic touches them in contrasting ways. Rama’s brother in Saudi Arabia has not had to report for work for a week now, while she has seen an increase in her workload.

“My brother told me over phone that he is bored as there is not much to do. I, on the other hand, have not had a moment free since the curfew started,” says Rama whose employer’s entire family is now at home all the time because they are not allowed to go out.

“Usually the family used to go out for dinners on Thursdays and Fridays, and I had it relatively easy, but now they are home all the time,” says Rama who misses her Sundays off that she spent with her Nepali friends. She added in Nepali: “Kam ko matra overtime, dam ko chahi chaina overtime.” (The work is overtime, but the money is not.)

Nepalis quarantined in Qatar, Upasana Khadka

Many Nepalis work in WRP, the Malaysian company making latex gloves that are now in high demand because of the pandemic. On Wednesday, the United States lifted its ban on WRP gloves which was imposed after reports of human rights abuse of its workers.

One Nepali worker at the WRP factory in Kuala Lumpur told us over the phone: "Half of us are working and the other half opted out because of the current epidemic." Under Malaysia's lockdown law only half the workforce can be employed in companies that make essential items, but they are trying to convince the government that are vital for protection of healthcare workers.”

Empty streets of Kotaraya in Malaysia, a migrant hotspot. Photo: UPASANA KHADKA

For Ramesh, who works as a security guard in a condominium in Malaysia, not much has changed. “My hours are the same: 8 hours regular work with 4 hours overtime. Other security guards who work in supermarkets have the added duty of checking the temperature of visitors at the entrance, but I don’t,” says Ramesh, who is worried about his cold, although he does not have a fever.

Ravi is employed in a large warehouse in Qatar and his workload has increased since more items need to be moved to storage. He describes how ensuring uninterrupted supply of goods entails a complex mechanism not visible to consumers. “Delays in construction can be managed, but what we are working with are daily needs that cannot be compromised. We wear protective gear now, and thankfully there have been no infections in our camp yet,” Ravi says. “But there is a sense of fear because we are in contact with various people.”

Ravi has less time these days to talk to his family back home, and is worried that they are worried about him. “My parents still think of me as a child even though I am pushing 45. But I understand that because I treat my own teenagers as children too,” he says.

Crossborder virus and Nepali migrant workers, Upasana Khadka

Hari works in the cleaning department in a hotel in Dubai and has lived there for over a decade. A section of the hotel is used to quarantine international incoming passengers, and has been locked off. “We have nothing to do with that section but it is still a chilling reminder that the virus may be nearby,” says Hari, whose expat friends have advised him not to share the fact with his family back in Nepal. “I am taking all necessary precautions, and we have full protective equipment,” Hari adds.

Mahesh works as a delivery boy and had just reached some juice and sandwich to a customer’s door when he picked a reporter’s call from Nepal. “My job is still the same but the roads are a lot emptier and there are fewer deliveries in a day,” says Mahesh, whose restaurant has downsized staff from India and Nepal.

One outcome of the pandemic is that it has forced governments to rethink that jobs carried out by migrant workers from Nepal and other countries are actually essential services. But the pandemic has jeopardised many of these jobs in the travel, service and manufacturing sector. The hope is that after things return to normal, migrant workers will be appreciated more.

“Most of our friends are free but not us,” says another Nepali worker in Qatar whose job is to fix Wifi in people’s homes. “We have masks, gloves and try to be as careful as possible but there is always that fear inside.”