By MATTEO FAGOTTO AND MATILDE GATTONI (KATHMANDU — Special to The Globe and Mail, 8 Jun 2015) –
Far from home
Hundreds of thousands of Nepalese have signed up to work in Qatar in preparation for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In the wake of the recent earthquakes, earning enough to send home to family is even more vital. But many Nepalese are forced to work long hours for pay far less than promised, reports Matteo Fagotto.
Some never return home.
“He never complained. At times he just said that the work was very hard.” Caressing her three-year-old son as she recalls the father he will never see again, 25-year-old Him Kumari Yongan tries to maintain her composure.
But her eyes fill with tears. “I don’t know what to do now,” she confesses. “I am alone.”
Ms. Yongan is sitting in a dingy guesthouse in Kathmandu, having come to the capital because her husband has died – not in their village in eastern Nepal but 3,500 kilometres away in the desert heat of the world’s wealthiest country.
In April, a few weeks before Nepal suffered its worst earthquake in 80 years, the petroleum-rich state of Qatar reported that its economy grew a healthy 6.2 per cent last year – almost triple the rise in Canada.
Such prosperity during a major slump in oil prices is due largely to a construction boom. The people who lead the world with a gross domestic product of almost $100,000 (U.S.) per capita are building stadiums, hotels, highways, shopping malls and airports, all to give life to one of the great global sports events: the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
It’s a massive undertaking for something now under threat. Soccer’s governing body has faced constant criticism and accusations of corruption since awarding its marquee event to Qatar.
In the wake of the bribery scandal that erupted on May 27, the scrutiny has become especially intense. Domenico Scala, FIFA’s chief auditor and compliance officer, said last week Qatar and Russia, which is playing host to the 2018 World Cup, could be stripped of hosting rights if bribery allegations are proven.
For its part, Qatar has denied any wrongdoing and continues to prepare for the Middle East debut of the World Cup. The country one fifth the size of Nova Scotia is investing $200-billion, which is roughly 10 times the GDP of Ms. Yongan’s impoverished homeland. More than 1.4 million outside workers have been brought into Qatar with another 500,000 required before the work is done.
Ms. Yongan’s husband of four years, Narabaj Tamang, was one of the 400,000 Nepalese working in Qatar, a figure that has doubled in the past five years. He is also one of the staggering 672 labourers to have died there at the same time, many of their deaths strangely attributed to cardiac arrest and other such “natural causes.”
According to his co-workers, Mr. Tamang simply didn’t wake up one morning. The medical report blames “acute respiratory failure,” but his wife suspects he was worked to death.
With 46-per-cent unemployment at home and heavily reliant on money sent by its citizens abroad, Nepal has been hesitant to press for explanations.
An estimated seven million Nepalese – 33 per cent of the labour force – work outside the country. Last year, they sent home an estimated $5.9-billion, almost 30 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. (The World Bank says only former Soviet republics Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan rely more on remittances.)
But now, with so many coming back in coffins, officials in ravaged Kathmandu are demanding action – as is the International Trade Union Confederation, the voice of global labour.
The ITUC campaigns on behalf of migrant workers and wants those affected by Nepal’s quake allowed to come home. It has written to ask that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates suspend the kafala, a notorious sponsorship system that allows workers to leave only with their employer’s permission.
According to news reports, money transfers from overseas workers have doubled since the quake, and many are flocking home, in some cases granted leaves of absence by employers who paid their airfare.
They are badly needed, both in the short term to help friends and family get through the disaster, and in the long term to help the nation rebuild.
But can they afford to stay?
Tarnished in advance
Young people like Mr. Tamang leave Nepal because they are desperate. The country is not much bigger than Iowa, has few natural resources and a population of 26 million who, until seven years ago, were ruled by an absolute monarch.
Before the earthquake, 1,700 workers left from Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport on average every day. And every day, at least two came back in a box, says Sumitra Singh of the Nepalese Foreign Employment Promotion Board, the agency responsible for compensation when workers are harmed.
The lineup in the departure lounge usually begins to form at 7 a.m., while not far away, families wait patiently for hours in arrivals, doing the paperwork required to retrieve the remains of their loved ones.
The ITUC warns that, unless something is done, Qatar’s worker death toll could hit 4,000 (versus nine for the last two World Cups, in Brazil and South Africa) before the competition begins.
Those who return paint a grim picture: 10- to 14-hour work days, often in extreme heat, as well as cramped accommodations, and poor sanitation. Having gone into debt just to be there, they routinely work overtime to make ends meet, often sleeping just four hours a day.
Human-rights and trade-union organizations attribute deaths listed as cardiac or respiratory failures to the appalling conditions, but Mr. Singh says that Qatar does not – because its insurance would not cover such fatalities, or those by suicide.
Qatari officials have been heavily criticized both for the mistreatment and for the kafala sponsorship system that makes it almost impossible for workers to change jobs, leave the country without permission or sue an employer if there is a dispute.
But the web of abuse, deception and debt often starts at home.
Workers pay their own way
The streets of Kathmandu are lined with billboards advertising exotic employment destination, and before the earthquake, bus stations and guesthouses were constantly filled with workers coming and going.
Most come from villages in the lowlands, where joblessness is rampant, and have been recruited by local brokers for recruiting agencies in the capital. (Mr. Tamang was from Tehratum in the far east near Nepal’s border with the Indian state of Sikkim.)
On paper, Nepal has strict migration regulations: Positions abroad have to be advertised in local newspapers, specifying their duration and pay; before someone leaves, all the necessary documents, including contract, hiring company profiles and medical reports, must be submitted to the Department of Foreign Employment (DFE) for approval.
But because most applicants live outside Kathmandu, they rely on intermediaries to take care of the paperwork – contracts, passport applications, medical reports and airline tickets.
For this, they pay $750 to $2,000 but often arrive in the city only a day or two before their departures, leaving little time (even for those who can read) to examine their contracts.
By then it’s too late for second thoughts, anyway. “Workers cannot withdraw themselves at that point, as they have already taken loans to pay for the trip,” says Rameshwar Nepal, director of Amnesty International’s local branch.
Nepal has set limits for fees the agencies may charge and stiff penalties for those who don’t respect them.
Kumud Khanal, vice-president of the Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies, manages an agency himself and claims that NAFEA members make just 5-per-cent profit on fees that have not seen an increase since 2002, when airfares, insurance payments and the exchange rate were much lower.
But law enforcement is weak. It’s common for agencies to demand double what’s allowed, under the table, and document problems are easily fixed. While the DFE is supposed to check applications thoroughly at the airport, its officers are routinely arrested for taking bribes.
Even then, many workers get a big surprise upon reaching Qatar: Their jobs – and pay – turn out to be less than expected.
Ms. Yongan’s husband, for example, was hired as a security guard. Instead, the former English teacher (who couldn’t support his family on $30 a month) wound up a window cleaner, dangling in the sun from Doha skyscrapers.
The agency that sent Mr. Tamang to Qatar said he’d earn $330 a month. But he was paid one-third less than that – despite, says a brother-in-law who also made the trip, working 12 hours a day, six days a week, until the day he died.
A view of the West Bay, a newly developed neighbourhood in Doha. It is considered as one of the most prominent districts in Qatar and includes modern buildings and some of the country’s tallest skyscrapers.
‘We are a poor country’
Reports of how Qatar treats foreign workers – as de facto slaves unable to go home without permission – have caused such a backlash that in many quarters the image of its World Cup has already been tarnished, seven years before the fact.
It has been a year since a review commissioned by Qatar itself called for no fewer than 62 reforms. Yet little has been done to address what the heat, long hours and dubious safety measures are doing to the workers.
Until recently Nepal has felt powerless. The DFE’s deputy director admits there is “connivance between manpower agencies and companies in Qatar.”
“But we cannot reach there,” adds Surya Koirala. “We are a poor country. We cannot impose ourselves.”
Fortunately, others are more determined, and a growing wave of criticism last year prompted Qatar to promise reforms, such as the abolition of the kafala. It also has announced plans for better treatment of workers at the eight soccer stadiums being built or renovated, to limit outdoor work in summer and new accommodations for 150,000 workers.
But the measures have not been implemented and, even when they are, what penalties transgressors will face remain unclear. Seven months ago, Amnesty International accused Qatar of “dragging its feet” on reforms that the ITUC dismisses as “purely cosmetic.”
In April, ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow was withering when members of the International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency, postponed a vote on taking action.
“Qatar used its financial muscle over other governments to buy yet more time, after years of empty promises to bring its system of slave labour to an end,” she said, before sounding a bitter note of irony.
“Worst of all, governments from Asia and Africa, where most migrant workers in Qatar come from, refused to stand up for their own people. A further six-month delay will cost scores of lives.”
Until recently, few in Nepal have dared to hope things would ever improve. Officials at the Qatari embassy in Kathmandu declined repeated requests to discuss the situation, which Mr. Khanal of NEFEA says neither country has addressed properly.
“We asked the Nepali embassy in Qatar and the Qatari consul in Kathmandu to blacklist the companies which abuse workers,” he explains, “but this is not done because [Qatar] needs labour.”
Then, on April 6, the Nepalese confronted Qatar’s visiting minister of labour and social welfare with an array of “pressing issues,” such as insurance that covers workers around the clock, proper training and the strengthening of workplace safety and security. Most of all, the country wants Qatar to cover the cost of recruitment, so those like Narabaj Tamang already battling poverty don’t have to go deeper into debt just to find a job.
A senior Nepalese official says the Qatari delegation “vowed to convey our message to the policy makers.” And in March, an employer in Doha was fined more than $240,000 for negligence and three of its supervisors sent to jail after toxic fumes killed four workers from India in a sewer they’d been ordered to clean.
The “blood money” is to go to the victims’ families and the managers are to spend six months behind bars – unless, of course, the verdict is overturned.
But, some still suspect there may never be any appreciable progress.
“Nothing has really changed,” says Nilambar Badal of the Asian Human Rights and Culture Development Forum, arguing that Qatar’s government “made these announcements only to save its face.”
Either way, the Gulf states need workers. And the Nepalese need the work, especially now that so much of their country lies in ruins. Not only is the damage done to the economy widely expected to spark a new exodus of job-seekers, most of those now coming back to help can’t stay indefinitely – they still owe money to their employment brokers.
Despite the illegal fees, bribes and denial of their basic rights, migration has become a profession. Its practitioners often come home only briefly between contracts and, if the experience abroad has been bad, they are too proud to admit it.
“Workers don’t want to be perceived as failures,” Mr. Badal says. “They will hide their tears and laugh about it.”
Narabaj Tamang’s widow, however, does neither: She can’t hide her tears and has no reason to smile.
The survivor benefits that Him Kumari Yongan has come all the way to Kathmandu to collect amount to $1,500. That is just $300 more than the loan her late husband needed to cover the employment agency’s fees and his plane fare to Qatar – a loan that his widow is now required to repay.
Matteo Fagotto is a Milan-based journalist and co-founder with photographer Matilde Gattoni of Tandem Reportages