Paying an arm and a leg

Hari Pun, 31, was working on the scaffolding of a building in the Malaysian city of Penang last year. He was wearing a plastic helmet, but had no safety harness. As he leaned to reach out, he fell to the ground.

Pun had asked for a safety strap, but his Chinese supervisor had told him: “It is just a three-storey building. You won’t die even if you fall.” The supervisor was right: Pun did not die. But his fractured spine turned left him quadriplegic.

Pun was working in Malaysia for three years, after spending two years in Saudi Arabia. Missing home and family, he was preparing for a return to Baglung to be with his wife and two little boys. When he did return home, it was with broken bones and shattered dreams.

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It has been a year since Pun was confined to bed, where he lies staring at the ceiling of his stone and mud house. His wife works on the family farm and looks after their livestock. She had been able to send their children to a private school with the money Pun sent home. Now, the family cannot afford it, and the boys will go to a government school.

“I did not die, but what I am going through now is like dying every single day,” Pun told Nepali Times over the phone this week.

Milan Karki's right thumb was chopped off while working at a factory in Kuala Lumpur. Photos: OM ASTHA RAI

When Kamal Khatri, 21, went to work at a rubber factory in Johor Bahru in Malaysia last year, he shared a room with an older Nepali migrant worker who had lost four of his fingers and warned him: “Be careful, those machines can swallow you alive.”

Khatri was careful, but in one late night shift, his right hand was caught in a latex grinding machine and torn to shreds. It happened at 5AM, and Khatri had been on the factory floor for nine hours. He was tired and sleepy, and had reached down to pull out a rod that had got stuck in the grinder when the machine suddenly restarted.

“It happened so fast it took me a long time to realise that my hand was gone,” he recalls. “For months, when I had an itch or when I wanted to hold something, I would reflexively turn to my absent hand.”

It has been a year since Khatri returned to his village in Bhojpur, but is still not used to being left-handed. “My aim was to look after my elderly parents, but they have to look after me,” he told us.

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The Nepali media often print pictures of coffins of dead migrant workers arriving at Kathmandu airport, and the human cost of labour migration gets much attention. But the fatalities overshadow the plight of wounded migrant workers, and their lack of support back home.

Official records show that in the last ten years, 1,178 Nepali migrant workers returned home wounded. The actual number could be higher. Undocumented workers who have lost limbs are not counted, like Milan Karki whose right thumb was chopped off while working at a factory in Kuala Lumpur. He stayed back even after his contract expired.

Nepal’s Foreign Employment Promotion Board provides financial help up to Rs700,000 for wounded migrant workers, depending on the severity of their disability. Since its inception a decade ago, the Board has doled out more than Rs160 million in aid to those returning with disabilities. However, for the severely wounded like Hari Pun, and those suffering mental trauma, compensation is not enough.

The number of wounded migrant workers is still much less than fataities, but it has been on the rise (see chart). Experts say the fact that so many Nepali workers are being injured abroad shows systemic lapses in their pre-departure orientation.

In the past, migrant workers could easily obtain certificates after participating in pre-departure orientation on safety without attending a single class. The government now claims to have curbed this malpractice, but ensuring participation may not be sufficient. Jiwan Kumar Rai of the Board says: “We need to develop a system to examine if migrant workers have understood the basics of the pre-departure orientation.”

The rising number of wounded workers also exposes Nepal’s failure to press destination countries to do more to ensure their safety. Malaysia tops the list of the riskiest destinations not only in terms of deaths, but also workplace injuries. Nearly half the Nepali workers who returned home with workplace injuries in the past decade were wounded in Malaysia. (See map above).

Nepal last month signed an agreement with Malaysia to protect Nepali workers from exploitation by recruiters and employers. Labour Secretary Mahesh Prasad Dahal told Nepali Times the pact was the most progressive labour agreement Nepal has ever signed with a destination country.

He said: “The agreement will enable Nepalis wounded in the work place to claim compensation from Malaysian employers.”

I begged the nurse to poison me

Mithuwa Kumar Thakur, 36, was determined to escape poverty and unemployment in Nepal. So when all his construction worker friends would take a short nap after lunch break, he would practice driving a road roller in the sweltering desert of Saudi Arabia.

One hot afternoon, he lost control of the compactor, crushing his left leg below the knee. It had to be amputated.

When he came to at a Saudi hospital, he wept for days, not because he was an invalid but because he realised that he was the sole breadwinner for his family. Thakur comes from Dhanusa in the eastern Tarai, the district with the highest number of migrant workers.

“I was in agony, so I begged the nurse to secretly poison me to death,” he confided. “I did not want to return home without a leg.”

He says he thought of killing himself, even after coming home: “I could not look at the dejected faces of my wife and growing daughters.” But after being counselled by a psycho-social expert mobilised by the Swiss government-funded Safer Migration (SaMi) project, Thakur regained his determination to live.

He learnt carpentry, and now works at a local furniture factory. “Because I do not have a leg, I do not earn as much as other carpenters,” he says. “But this is just enough to feed my family.”

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