With little to no employment opportunities in Nepal, people have no choice but to migrate abroad. Each year, hundreds of thousands of women and men leave home with hopes of a better life. Qatar is one of the top three destinations for Nepali workers with 300,000 labor approvals issued in the last three years alone.
Nepal’s Constitution, the Foreign Employment Act (2007) and numerous policies, guidelines, and directives as well as Qatar’s labor laws are supposed to ensure safeguards from exploitation. Both countries have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and have expressed commitments to comply with international labor standards including the United Nations Global Compact on Migration.
Many Nepalis earn wages in Qatar to support their families through employment opportunities there. But thousands are subjected to exploitative practices that amount to forced labor and human trafficking. For these women and men, the dream of a better life for themselves and their families has become a nightmare because of the failure of Nepal and Qatar to protect their rights.
The Nepal-Qatar Joint Committee meeting is set to happen in Kathmandu today. This event is an opportunity to tackle the key issues of safe migration for Nepali workers.
Policies vs practices
The Qatar government has adopted an ‘employer pays’ policy that prohibits charging any fees to workers and has established Visa Centers in Nepal to facilitate lawful recruitment. Similarly, the Nepal government introduced a ‘Free Visa, Free Ticket’ policy in 2015 which requires the costs of recruitment to be covered by the employer. Even despite this, the reality is that the practice of charging workers for recruitment is so embedded in Nepal that workers are compelled to pay exorbitant amounts for jobs, including in Qatar. Several studies, including by the National Human Rights Commission and Office of the Auditors General note that authorities in Nepal and countries of destinations like Qatar have failed to implement the ‘employer pays’ policy. This has pushed hundreds of thousands of Nepali workers into debt bondage.
Contract substitution is another deceptive recruitment practice that happens with the involvement of both recruiters in Nepal and employers in Qatar. Private recruitment agencies and their agents in Nepal usually promise handsome figures to lure in workers and justify charging hefty fees. After reaching Qatar, many do not share the same fortune. A report of the International Relations and Labor Committee of the Nepal Parliament based on their visit to Qatar and other Gulf states concluded that around 90 percent of the workers were forced to sign a different contract after reaching the Gulf.
Workers going to Qatar are routinely deceived in terms of salary, benefits, nature of work, employer, working hours and overtime duty by recruiters at home and employers in Qatar. Already knee deep in debt and desperate for employment, workers are forced to take on exploitative conditions, only hoping that things will get better. The National Human Rights Commissions of both Nepal and Qatar had also signed a MoU to advance Nepali workers’ rights in the country of destination. But ineffective monitoring of recruitment practices by Nepal and Qatar exposes workers to a cycle of exploitation that may last for months on end, even years.
Nonpayment or delay in paying wages to workers by employers is rampant in Qatar. Nepal’s foreign employment law makes recruiters liable and Qatar’s labor law requires employers to compensate unpaid salary of the workers. Additionally, Qatar introduced the ‘Wage Protection System’ (WPS). However, both countries have failed to address thousands of cases of wage theft due to a lack of effective monitoring and redress mechanisms, resulting in workers losing their wages for years at end, in one of the richest countries in the world.
Workers going to Qatar are routinely deceived in terms of salary, benefits, nature of work, employer, working hours and overtime duty by recruiters at home and employers in Qatar.
Thousands of Nepali workers have lost their lives in Qatar in unexplained circumstances, including a high number of cardiac deaths of workers of relatively young age. This has been an area of concern in the international community for more than a decade. The Guardian’s recent research shows that Qatar has failed to explain up to 70 percent of migrant workers’ deaths, about 4,658 mostly men, over the last 10 years. The International Labor Organization has also concluded that Qatar has failed to adequately account for workers’ deaths.
Qatar claims to have ended the restrictive Kafala system in 2020 through the passage of laws that, among other things, ostensibly free workers from seeking their employer’s permission to change jobs or leave the country. But in practice, employers still have significant control over whether a worker can leave their job or the country. Employers are still accusing workers of absconding, leading to them being fined, detained, or even prosecuted as criminals merely for escaping abuse. As a result, workers continue working in exploitative conditions that may amount to forced labor.
Time for redress
Lengthy and costly legal proceedings, challenges in accessing competent legal representation and financial constraints discourage workers from filing legal complaints against their employers. Even if workers do file a case and the decision is in their favor, implementation of such decisions is slow, inconsistent or non-existent.
Any new agreement between Nepal and Qatar must include provisions to respect international human rights and labor rights obligations and standards on recruitment, employment, workers’ rights, safety and health and access to justice.
The role of bilateral instruments cannot be overlooked in labor governance. Both countries signed an MoU in 2005 and its additional protocol in 2008 to facilitate Nepali labor force to work in Qatar. The agreement, although a crucial one, lacks basic human rights and labor rights provisions. On the other hand, it has long been neglected as neither of the parties have taken any initiative to review and/or update it.
Thus there is an urgent need to address the gaps in workers’ protection that are leaving women and men exposed to exploitation and even death. Nepal and Qatar have a unique opportunity to address these concerns in the Nepal-Qatar Joint Committee. Any new agreement between the two countries must include provisions to respect international human rights and labor rights obligations and standards on recruitment, employment, worker rights at work, safety and health, and access to justice and other remedies.
Deepika Thapaliya, an advocate, is labor rights researcher at Equidem Nepal, a human rights organization based in Kathmandu. She has been working on labor rights issues faced by Nepali migrant workers in major destination countries, predominantly the Gulf for the past three years. Most recently, she worked closely in ‘The Cost of Contagion’ report published by Equidem.