The concerning situation of Nepali labor migrants in the Gulf countries

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Nepal has a large migrant population. Their situation in the different countries they are working in, especially in the Gulf countries, is increasingly concerning. The Nepali government needs to ensure its citizens have a secure framework for them to work abroad safely, for it is in the interest of Nepal’s development.

Figures about Nepal’s migrant population reflect different realities. The emigration rate in 2011 was 10.77 per thousands, but the same year, 7.3 percent of the population was considered as absent. The Department of Foreign Employment provides diverging numbers. In 2014, 3,489,365 Nepali were granted an official permit to work abroad. This figure amounts to 13 percent of the population.

Nepal has a long tradition of migration, from the Gurkhas in the 19th century to the Nepalis leaving the country for security reasons during the civil war. Nowadays, the migration dynamic is driven by economic factors. Nepali migrants are mostly young men who move abroad to find jobs.

The Gulf countries have become the favorite destination of migration for Nepalis since the late 2000s. 19 percent of Nepali migrants go to Qatar, 18.9 percent to Saudi Arabia, and 9.8 percent to the United Arab Emirates.  

However, Nepali migrants can face very harsh working and living conditions abroad. Most of them migrate through the Kafala system, a sponsorship system biding the migrant to its employer, and effectively restricting labor mobility, since migrants need the approval of their employers to quit their job or to return home. This system, violating workers rights, has been officially abolished in Qatar.

The cases of abuse and exploitation are distressing. Recently, 12 Nepali migrants returned home after not being paid by their employers in Saudi Arabia for four months. This example is only one among many others. Cases of human trafficking are also reported, and Qatar has been accused of forced labor on World Cup construction sites. Amnesty International organized a project to make migrants aware of their rights, in order to prevent those kinds of abuse.

If NGOs are stepping in, it is because the government has let the issue turn sour. A parliament committee has released an alarming report, blaming the government for burying its head in the sand over the situation of its citizens in the Gulf countries. Another parliamentary report even claims the implication of the government in human trafficking. Nepali women are said to be trafficked with the collusion of Nepali officials at airports. They are granted tourist visas to go to Gulf countries. They are then employed as maid there, their passports are confiscated and they often are exploited or sexually harassed.

The gulf diplomatic crisis has worsened the situation of the 400,000 Nepali migrants working in Qatar. They have to cope with the increase of food prices induced by the embargo, while their wages are quite low. Some migrants in the hotel industry have been fired because of the lack of tourists. For the majority of Nepali migrants working on the World Cup construction site, the situation is quite precarious too, since the blockade prevents the shipping of raw material there and construction have stopped. They may face wage decrease or even dismissal.

The migrant situation was already fragile in the Gulf countries before the blockade. It is intrinsically linked fluctuations of oil and gas price, since these countries rely heavily on these exportations as sources of income. A decrease in prices leads to less budget and thus less infrastructure projects in which many foreign migrants are employed in. Migrants form a cheap labor force that is easily lay off and works as an adjustment variable. In 2016 for example, a Saudi company had to let go of 77,000 migrant workers after a fall in oil prices.

This endangered situation is not only concerning for the migrant as an individual, but also for Nepal as a state. Indeed, it can affect the country on a wider level, because of its impact on remittances.

Nepal relies a lot on remittances. They account for 29.7 percent of Nepal’s GDP. 56 percent of households in Nepal receive remittances and they amount to 31 percent of their income. 26 percent of these remittances come from Gulf countries. A downturn in this source of revenue could therefore be a real issue for Nepal.

Some argue that the influx of remittances during the last decade caused inflation. A rise in Nepalis’ purchasing power transferred to an increase of prices. Remittances helped importing more products from abroad, thus reducing incentives to produce at home and therefore weakening the country’s productive base. It then restrained the demand for domestic jobs and induced more migration.

This vicious circle has a negative effect, but remittances remain vital for Nepal. They sustain Nepalis way of life. 79 percent of their amount is used for daily consumption, thus these remittances help many households to feed themselves. And even if remittances are few spent on capital formation, it is still a larger source of investment than domestic savings.

Nepal has already known a relative slowdown in remittances last year, due to a reducing flow of Nepalis going abroad. This decrease can be accounted for domestic reasons, as Nepalis stayed to help rebuild their community after the 2015 earthquake, or for international explanations, since employment in the Gulf countries has diminished.

There are many sides to this migration phenomenon. Migration is needed for remittances, but also because the labor market in Nepal cannot absorb all the workforce, and Nepali migrants come back home more skilled and can help develop their country.

The government has made some efforts to ease labor migrants’ working conditions: more legal counseling is provided and the amount of compensations in case of injuries or deaths have increased. But more still must be done. The government needs to better accompany its migrant citizens and to secure a safer framework for these migrations and remittances to occur, so to ensure a more prosperous future for the whole country.