Nepalis in Saudi Arabia stage protest

Stranded Nepali workers who have been unemployed since March, staging a protest in a labour camp demanding to be repatriated home.

Hundreds of Nepali migrants working for a Saudi Arabian supply company staged a protest against the Nepal government and embassy in their employer’s camp in Riyadh on Tuesday, demanding more flights to go home.

The workers have been unemployed for the past six months, and accuse the Nepal government of not providing enough flights even though their employer, Smasco, is willing to sponsor their air fares and pay for PCR tests.

“The company points at the embassy, the embassy points at the company. Where do we go?” an exasperated Nepali worker said on the phone. In response to the protest, 50 of the workers were sent to the Nepali Embassy in a company vehicle where they were assured that their concerns will be addressed.

In fact, the embassy in Riyadh has also been asking the government to increase the number of repatriation flights since Saudi Arabia had one of the highest numbers of workers who wanted to go home, and no carrier (except Nepal’s Himalaya Airlines) operate regular flights from Saudi cities to Kathmandu.

The Nepal government has put a cap of 800 arriving passengers per day at Kathmandu airport after limited regular flights were allowed on 1 September, which means the number of repatriation flights are restricted.

Because of this quota, the Nepal government turned down a request by the UAE to fly 1,120 stranded Nepali workers home for free on Etihad Airways. Transguard in the UAE has also not been able to get permission to charter flights to transport its Nepali employees home.

The crowded hall where many Nepali workers in Saudi Arabia have spent the past months to get on flights home. Although regular flights have resumed, Kathmandu airport can only take 800 arriving passengers a day.

“They say the daily quota at Kathmandu airport is because of quarantine limitations, but if we are going home with PCR negative reports how does the 800 cap make sense?” asks an exasperated Nepali worker with Transguard in the UAE, who like others did not want to be quoted by name.

Things are going to be more difficult for foreign nationals with expired visas in the UAE after 11 September because they will be required to start paying hefty overstay fines.

Another worker in the UAE who does not have employer support is worried about the high fares for flights to Kathmandu of up to AED2,500 (US$680), which is more than double the pre-pandemic flight cost. He said: “The embassy’s priority list is now useless. They are no longer deciding the passenger list like they did earlier when the most vulnerable workers were prioritised for repatriation flights. Tickets are sold to those who can pay.”

Another worker added that those who had their jobs and were paid regularly also flew to Nepal on annual leave, when unemployed Nepalis like him who have been waiting for six months have not been able to because of the high airfares.

“That really hurt,” he said. “It is the well-paid worker with regular salary who gets to go home on vacation. What are we to make of this?”

Flights to Nepal limited by airport capacity, Nepali Times

The government’s much touted scheme to use the Foreign Employment Welfare Fund (FEWF) to pay for the tickets of really desperate workers has not worked. So far, only 86 workers from Malaysia have received support under this scheme. The government has also not made any arrangement to use its own Covid-19 relief budget to support stranded undocumented workers who are the ones most in need of help but are ineligible for the FEWF supported scheme as they did not contribute to it.

Meanwhile, undocumented Nepali workers in Lebanon who had paid US$800 for tickets home in March are still stuck there because of cancelled flightsRepatriation flights from Beirut by Nepal Airlines were announced, but never happened.

Most of those stranded in Lebanon are female household workers, who have also been affected by Lebanon’s faltering economy, especially after the Beirut blast last month.

Said one of them: “As stay-out domestic workers, we do not get cleaning jobs as often anymore. And no one has come forward to help in the midst of this pandemic, the economic crisis and the blast.”

The root of the problem is the high cost of the limited number of flights, and the month-by-month schedule which makes it difficult for employers to organise the paperwork for returning workers. An embassy official says missions do not have a role anymore on who gets on a plane. The travel agencies and the airlines decide, based on the daily airport arrival quota in Kathmandu, which means the most desperate workers cannot get home.

Some employers who were earlier willing to pay for repatriation are now proposing cost-sharing with workers because the fares are higher than normal. But many of the workers have been unemployed for six months, and have run out of savings.

Says a Nepali worker involved in the protest in Riyadh on Tuesday: “We staged the protest out of desperation because no one was paying any attention to us. Our video went viral, but we don’t just want people to like and share it, we want to be rescued and brought home as soon as possible.”

Read also: Nepali workers returning to India, Upasana Khadka

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