Lift the ban on domestic workers

Nepali domestic worker in balcony of a Beirut house. Photo: UPASANA KHADKA

Shama had a job waiting for her as a domestic worker in Kuwait. But given Nepal’s ban on such work, she travelled overland through India and finally left Delhi airport. However, she could not make it past immigration in the UAE, and was sent back to Kathmandu the same day – the very airport that she had initially avoided due to the ban.

The Parliamentary Committee on Industry, Commerce, Labour and Consumer Interest will be visiting the Gulf this month to review the situation of Nepali domestic workers. This visit will determine the fate of tens of thousands of Nepalis like Shama impacted by the ban on domestic workers that came into effect in 2017 after a similar visit by a Parliamentary Committee.

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That visit was considered not thorough enough because Committee Members, instead of making the effort to reach out to domestic workers outside the Embassy, were reported to be more interested to meet politically connected businessmen and NRNA leaders. Their interactions with domestic workers were limited to abused migrant workers at embassy shelters.

With insufficient protection, domestic work is one of the most exploited sectors, but extending the ban took the focus away from the core issues, including more bilateral efforts, diplomatic pressure, strengthening of embassies, better training, and new ways to maintain regular contact with domestic workers and stronger monitoring of both employers and recruiters.

Instead, the ban superseded any policy to correct weaknesses in the domestic work sector, making them even more invisible as they are neither in the government's records, nor eligible for safe migration initiatives. This has made holding recruiters or employers accountable for abuse even more challenging.

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 Shama flew out through India but could not get past immigration in Dubai.

As a blanket policy, the ban also does not distinguish among destination countries or domestic work categories. Not all countries where Nepalis are in domestic work are equally vulnerable. The UAE, for example, has made visible efforts on domestic worker safety. It has adopted a domestic worker specific law, and has set up Government-approved Tadbeer Centers that provide all services related to domestic workers. Similarly, not all domestic workers are equally vulnerable. A domestic worker is not just a housemaid, but they also work as guards, gardeners, personal cooks and drivers.

Because of the high demand for domestic workers and the push factors in Nepal, the ban has allowed unscrupulous agents to find loopholes to overcome the state-imposed barriers. The long open border with India has rendered the ban ineffective. And many domestic workers continuing to go abroad as cleaners or on tourist visas, with airport ‘setting’ -- a widely understood phenomenon involving bribes to the immigration and labour counter.

Read also: Nepal allows female domestics to come home for Dasain

We criticise the limited mobility of Nepali workers abroad because their passports are confiscated by employers, yet we limit a domestic worker's mobility by refusing them labour approvals to travel abroad legally. We emphasise skills training for migrant workers, but we deprive them of the 35-day mandatory, free, residential domestic worker pre-departure training as per Nepali law when the ban isn’t in place. We censure limited labour rights abroad, yet impose a ban that prevents thousands of women from visiting ailing parents or reuniting with their children back home. Until recently when the government finally allowed current domestic workers to come home for holidays, they could not return to Nepal for fear of not being allowed back out to well-paying jobs, and those who had to pay large sums to use unauthorised channels.

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The ban clearly does not take into account the factors that drive women to seek domestic work abroad.  For many women, it is the first time they engage in work with renumeration and allow them to provide for their families.

Stories of abuse are prevalent and horrific, but surely numerous on-and-off restrictive policies in the last two decades (age bans, country bans, conditional bans, blanket bans) are not the appropriate response. The Parliamentary Committee owes it to current and future Nepali domestic workers to end the ban once and for all, and to emphasise more effective policy responses that get to the heart of the issue and not shrug off responsibility by attributing any malpractice to the domestic worker's own irresponsibility for breaking the law.

Name of worker has been changed.

Upasana Khadka


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