Who builds Kathmandu?

Not all of Nepal’s migrant workers go abroad, many are day labourers on construction sites in the capital

It is 6am on a recent chilly morning at a bus stop on the Ring Road. The eastern sky is lighting up as a smoggy capital stirs awake. 

The sidewalk here is already crowded with people huddled along the concrete plinth of a building. Each person carries a cloth bag filled with tools. They glance expectantly at passersby and perk up when a pickup slows down on the road. 

At the other end of town at Mahalaxmi intersection it is a similar sight. Hundreds are gathered on the sidewalk. One of the men has a navy blue crossbody bag with ‘PLUMBING’ emblazoned on it. The bag makes him stand out. 

Sure enough, an approaching motorcycle slows down next to the man. The helmeted rider talks to him for a while, and soon the man heaves the bag on his back and rides pillion as the motorcycle drives off. The plumber has landed himself a job for the day and beat the others because he advertised his profession.   

The others wait. Another motorcycle stops, and the men crowd around. It is a competitive market, and the supply of labour is greater than the demand with the slowdown in Nepal’s economy affecting the construction industry.

This means it is a buyer’s market and daily wages are down as the construction contractors on motorcycles bargain hard. 

This is a usual morning scene at strategic intersections along the Ring Road in Kathmandu. By the time the sun comes up, there are still those who have not been hired and they head off to their rented rooms, disappointed that it is another day without income. 

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Ram Gurung, 62, rents a room in a crowded Asan alley and gets up before dawn every morning to walk to the Ring Road intersection that now even has a name -- Chakrapath Labour Chok. 

There are at least five other outdoor labour markets in Kathmandu Valley: Chakrapath, Mahalaxmi, Ratna Park, Thapathali and Baneswar. Although Ratna Park is much closer, Gurung prefers to go to the drive-through labour recruitment sidewalk at Chakrapath. Workers have figured out the characteristics of each of these hubs, and the kind of construction recruiters who frequent them. 

Originally from Chitwan, Gurung came to Kathmandu with the dream of getting a job and earning money like many domestic migrant workers who make up the majority of the freelance labourers in the capital. Not on regular salaries, daily wage construction workers who gather in Labour Chok end up wherever their one-day employer takes them. On a fortunate day, the one-day employer can hire the worker for a week-long construction job. Sometimes, it can even be for a month on a construction project outside the Valley. 

Gurung has spent half of his life repeating this drill of waiting for a day job on the sidewalk, toiling till evening, buying a meal with the day’s pay, and getting up the next morning for another job hunt.

“I was one of the workers who was involved in rebuilding Bir Hospital with an Indian company,” recalls Gurung. “I was paid Rs20 a day. The rent in those days was only Rs100.” 

Today, the monthly rent for a small room in the city is Rs5,000, and the daily wage of in-migrant workers is anywhere between Rs800-Rs2,500, depending on their skill. The more common day wage is between Rs1,000-1,500 per day. 

Gurung does not know for sure how many years he has spent waiting for work on the sidewalk every morning. “It must be over 25 years,” he estimates. He has not moved up the ranks or gained any specialised skills. The only thing that has changed is his daily wage which sounds like it is more, but has barely kept up with inflation.     

The foundation of Kathmandu sits atop the blood, sweat and tears of construction workers in the informal economy like Gurung who have no benefits, no insurance and have to make a living from one day to the next. Kathmandu’s buildings may have been designed by famous architects, but it is built by day labourers.

They have migrated in from the countryside, from the Tarai, and even from neighbouring Indian states. The city has no count of how many such workers there are, and does not seem to care much for their struggle to survive during the pandemic lockdown and the economic downturn that has lasted since then.  

“There are no official statistics about how many day labourers are on the streets waiting to be hired, but I believe the number is in the five digits,” says Rameshwar Nepal at Equidem Research which works on human rights and labour issues. “A transient population this size cannot be ignored by the government.”  

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The past is the present 

Kathmandu’s street labour hubs expanded with the construction boom of the past decades, but the oldest ones are at Chakrapath, Mahalaxmi, and Ratna Park. 

“Some 20 years ago, the number of labourers gathering around on this chok would sometimes reach 2,500 each morning. But they would disperse to their work sites before anyone woke up,” remembers Hari Prasad Dahal, who has been running his tea shop at Mahalaxmi intersection for 32 years. Today, because of the work slump, there are workers all day but the peak is before 10am every morning.  

Dahal reckons that most labourers were from the Tarai or India, but that has changed in the past years with an increasing number of men from the eastern mountains. There is also a visible increase in the number of women workers looking for day jobs in construction. 

This new demographic is different from earlier workers from the plains. The mountain in-migrants tend to arrive in Kathmandu with their wives and children and make a living from the daily earnings.  

Located at the intersection, Dahal’s tea shop is where labourers gather around every morning. And on cold mornings, he does brisk business selling tea. But Dahal is not very fond of the new breed of workers, and is disparaging about them, saying they are “lazy and out to make a quick buck”. 

“If they had been hard-working like in the old days, they would not be here waiting for a day job,” is his somewhat unfair assessment. 

There may be bad apples in the crowd. Most mornings, the odour of alcohol is strong among the labourers. But that is also the whiff of desperation driving many workers to wait out every morning for a job that may or may not happen. Getting work for a day is not easy, and they would not be here if there was an easier way to get a job. 

The newcomers seem lost, they follow whatever the more experienced ones do. Their families back in the districts are so destitute that they cannot even afford to pay recruiters to find them jobs overseas. Others are in transit, hoping to save enough to go abroad. However, like Gurung has discovered, Kathmandu’s living costs are so exorbitant that whatever they earn every day evaporates by the next morning.

“It takes a while to build your network in Kathmandu, be it with the employer to establish trust or with fellow workers who will call one another when there is a big construction project,” says Bikram Moktan, 30, who came here from Sindhuli three years ago.  

Finding work seems to be easier for day labourers from India since many are semi-skilled or skilled plumbers, electricians or masons. It is a profession passed down through the generations, and some are descendants of workers whose fathers worked in Kathmandu.  

Yusuf Ansari, 17, came from a village in north India to work in Kathmandu with his father, who started out waiting for day jobs at construction sites but eventually became a tailor. These days Ansari comes to Ratna Park with his uncle Rajendra Sah, who is from Lucknow. 

Networks of workers and contractors make it easier to find jobs, but even despite that, some days there are no contractors. If they have not been hired by 10am, it is too late.  

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Living in the present  

Construction workers sell their labour to pay for a frugal life in Kathmandu, desperately trying to save some of their earnings to support their families. Often they share a tiny room with up to four others.  

Just a day without a job can mean trouble, and they have to scrounge or borrow for the evening meal. But on a good month, when there are regular jobs and timely payment, day labourers can earn up to Rs45,000. But that is without any weekends, sick leave, or any time to rest. The pay, nevertheless, is still better than a salary in a formal occupation back in the districts, or even here in the Valley. 

Rina Magar, 32, came to Kathmandu from Makwanpur when her family’s farm was infected with a crop disease. Putting her agriculture knowledge into practice, she worked on a farm and was paid Rs10,000 a month. A year ago, when she got sick and had to take a few days off, her employer fired her. 

Since then, she has started coming every morning to Mahalaxmi intersection looking for construction jobs. She tells us, “At least I get paid much more here, the only problem is the uncertainty of finding a day job.” 

Indeed, the labour market is seasonal with most construction jobs halted during the monsoon. The economic crisis has meant banks have tightened on loans for real estate and construction, and this has directly reduced the chances of finding day jobs at street-side labour hubs.  

Jugeshwar Ram from Sarlahi remembers it being much easier to find jobs. “Even in Dasain, there were lots of jobs painting or home repairs,” he recalls. This time in Dasain, he was at Thapathali every single day for 12 days without landing a job.  

To make matters worse, Ram was robbed the same night he arrived in Kathmandu from his home this time. He spent the night with other homeless people inside Ram Mandir in Thapathali. 

Iswar Basnet says he is careful because robbers know he is returning to his rooms with cash. “We really have to be vigilant because they know we have our day’s earnings with us,” says the 40-year-old while waiting for work at Baneswar intersection.

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Day labourers at Ratna Park intersection. Photo: PINKI SRIS RANA

Police have no time to attend to complaints from migrant workers. Umesh Kushuwa, 22, was robbed recently and suspects that the police must be in it with the looters on the streets late at night. “They just do not take our complaints seriously,” he tells us while waiting for work one morning.  

Several victims of robberies say that when they do complain to the police, they are dismissive and say that the robbers have already vanished without a trace and they have no time to go look for them. The risk is greater because many of the thieves also live in close quarters to the labourers, or share cheap lodgings. 

Other problems of day labourers are more mundane. Like the lack of toilets. A room with a latrine is a luxury, and the workers sometimes spend entire mornings waiting for their turn at their rented quarters, nearby temples, or shops, or pay Rs5 at a public toilet.  

Female day labourers face an even greater problem since they have no privacy. Mana Kumari Thapa, 53, has been a day wage labourer in Kathmandu for 15 years, and says, “We have to tag along with the other workers picked from the streets. And when we reach the construction site, we don’t even get a place to change our clothes.”  

The present is the future

Construction work needs stamina and endurance, it is physically demanding, and contractors are on the lookout for people who look physically fit. 

Nanda Kumar Rai has been working as a mason and a helper on buildings in Kathmandu for 25 years. Recently, he turned 52, and he looks emaciated from a life of hard work and undernourishment. Because he looks frail, he does not get hired from the streets anymore.  

“People do not give me work assuming that I will not be able to do it. There are some employers who know me who still offer me jobs from time to time, and that is how I survive,” says Rai.  

Sunil Silwal knows his fate will be the same as Rai’s in a few years. “This job is enough to keep us going but there are hardly enough savings, and no safety net for the future,” he says.   

Mechanisation of the construction industry has made work easier for some but is also taking away their jobs.  

“When concrete mixers were introduced, it took away the jobs of 3-4 labourers who did the work manually,” says 62-year-old Jiwan Tuladhar who has been in the business for more than two decades now.     

Tuladhar himself started out as a labourer and has now risen to become a contractor. Only a few of the more astute workers are unionised and are members of GEFONT (General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions), NTUC (National Trade Union Congress), and ANTUF (All Nepal Trade Union Federation) which are affiliated with different political parties. 

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The Unions provide workers with identity cards for a minimal fee of Rs150 that has to be renewed every year, but there are no tangible benefits other than compensation for job accidents, which is a lengthy process. Workers who are too busy waiting for work every morning have no time for unions.  

Article 43 of the Constitution of Nepal (2015) guarantees ‘the right to social security for citizens that come from indigent, incapacitated and helpless backgrounds including single women, children, citizens with disabilities and citizens belonging to endangered indigenous groups’. But for many waiting here for work every morning, those are empty words.  

Migration expert Ganesh Gurung describes freelance day labourers as “the poorest of the poor” and therefore more at risk of exploitation. “They have the highest vulnerability both financially and physically because of the nature of their work but there is no protection from the government,” he says. “The fact that Nepal’s Labour Act has no provisions for the informal sector itself says a lot.” 

Last year, municipalities were made responsible for including informal workers in the Social Security Fund (SSF). “The idea is to bring in municipalities who can contribute to the amount of the money that has to be paid to the SSF for the informal workers,” says Uttam Raj Pandey at the SSF. But there appears to be little progress in implementing the plan. 

Ganesh Gurung says the solution could be to provide incentives to ensure proper pay and bring the workers under the tax bracket over time so that they get the social security protection they need. While most labourers are willing to pay taxes if and when the government decides to provide incentives, they will not do so unless they see tangible benefits.  

Days of future passed  

The pull factor for day labourers in Kathmandu is its dramatic urbanisation during the conflict years as people fled the war for the relative safety of the city. Later it was for jobs and to invest in real estate and houses in the Valley.

The migration trend out of the mountains to the Tarai and cities is continuing unabated, with districts like Parbat, Tanahu, Bhojpur or Khotang losing up to 4% of their population every year. 

Some 80% of Nepalis are said to be involved in agriculture, but 1.5 million families, which make up to quarter of Nepal’s population, are still landless or have land issues. People who do not have land, or no job options are the ones migrating to Kathmandu.  

“If we had our own land, why would we bother to be on the streets every morning scrounging for a job,” says Manoj Mahato, 28, from Parsa who has been a daily wage earner for 14 years now. 

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The other demographic consists of people who have small parcels of land or have a small income, but not enough to take care of families. As Nepal’s economy is increasingly monetised, and transactions are cash-based, having a regular cash income is a must. 

“Even if we grow rice, pulses and vegetables, we still need things like salt and oil. And to buy those, one needs cash,” adds Iswar Basnet. 

“Fertiliser cannot be bought without cash,” agrees Gopal Ghimire from Dolakha who stopped farming when his crops were destroyed by monkeys, after which he moved to Kathmandu to find work. “In the villages, we live from harvest to harvest, here we live from day to day.” 

Two-thirds of Nepal’s agriculture-dependent population are subsistence farmers and do not have access to markets for produce, or do not grow a surplus to sell. Many labourers who have landed up on the streets of Kathmandu have given up on farming as a way to make a living.

Infrastructure like roads and buildings are now the tangible measures of development. And as the road network spreads to the remotest villages, ‘development’ is believed to have ‘arrived’. This newfound road connectivity in rural areas has made it easier for construction contractors to source cheap labour not just for Kathmandu but also for work in the districts.

Akash Yadav, 24, has been working as a mason since he was 16 and was technically a child worker. He has noticed that there is now an oversupply of labour in Kathmandu and this has driven down wages. 

“Back then, there was a lot of work in Kathmandu. Many buildings were being built. Now, there’s not much land here even to build houses, so the contractor takes us to the hilly districts for construction work,” says Yadav, who is from the plains and not used to the up and down of the mountain slopes.

Yamlal Bhusal of the National Planning Commission agrees with the trend: “To ensure balanced regional development across the country, we have to prioritise rural-based development projects.

Indeed, this could mean that the concentration of construction work in Kathmandu will finally ease as more jobs come up in newly connected rural areas. But local rural youth seem to be leaving the districts anyway, and the new jobs are being filled by outsiders.

“This clearly means we haven’t been able to deliver the development youth seek,” comments Mahesh Chandra Neupane, Deputy Director General of the Department of Local Infrastructure (DOLI), which has earmarked more than half of its 11 main projects for rural Nepal. “The jobs are temporary and do not guarantee that there will be more construction jobs in future, so the youth leave for the cities.”

Sitting on the steps of the Chakrapath Labour Chok recently, 52-year-old Nanda Rai echoes the views of many of his co-workers, “हामी कामदार मान्छे, हामीलाई काम भए पुग्छ।” (We are workers, give us jobs.”) 

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