A Wake-Up Call from Qatar

When will we take care of our youth who remit their sweat and blood to Nepal?

Qatar’s decision to end its controversial migrant sponsorship scheme ‘kafala’ on December 13 has come as scant relief to lakhs of Nepalese working in the oil-rich sheikhdom.

Long assailed by human rights organisations like Amnesty International and the Nepal government, as well, for its oppressive and modern day slavery approach and implementation, kafala has been responsible for the avoidable deaths of thousands of Nepalese migrants over the years.

Qatar is pushing hard to complete infrastructural work before it hosts the FIFA 2022 World Football World Cup. Nepalese migrant workers involved in the mammoth construction exercise died at the rate of every two days in 2014, according to Time magazine. The tragic number has not shown any significant fall since then.

But the Nepal government’s stand has been shocking. In fact, it recalled its Ambassador to Qatar, Maya Kumari Sharma, in 2013 when she dared to describe the sheikhdom as an “open jail” for workers in an interview with BBC. Later appointee Suryanath Mishra has attributed the deaths to stress and cheating by employment agencies.


The International Trade Union Confederation has estimated that the Nepalese casualties may rise to 4000 before the World Cup begins in 2022. That will be about half the people killed in the great earthquake. Extreme heat, squalid and cramped accommodation, poor sanitation, 10-14 hours of work every day and just four hours of sleep are killing the workers of our Himalayan nation in Qatar.

The hitherto prevalent kafala system has made life unbearable for all migrant workers including those from Nepal.

Qatar had been misusing its kafala sponsorship system to exploit cheap foreign labour mostly from South Asian countries. Like slaves of ancient and medieval times, migrant workers need to seek permission from employers to change jobs or leave the country. There is no dearth of employers who impound workers’ passports to prevent them from leaving. Passports are returned only after the needy worker coughs out a heavy amount. Few are able to do that and continue to wallow in misery.

In 2015, in an interview to Thomson Reuters Foundation, Labour Minister Tek Bahadur Gurung, had said, “From the human rights point of view of the workers, I think the kafala system should be abolished … workers should be allowed to return or change their jobs if they want to.”

But hasn’t all this been too little and too late. After all, way back in 2013, a petition entitled ‘End slavery of Nepalese migrant workers in Qatar!’ had been moved through change.org.  The petition urged the government of Qatar (a) “to ensure humane working conditions to all migrant workers in Qatar. Hailing from the temperate Himalayas, Nepalese migrant workers face a high probability of developing complications toward the 100+ degree Fahrenheit desert heat they work in (often for 12+ hours/day non-stop)”; (b) “to allow migrant workers to leave their jobs at will as in any other developed nation”; (c) “to pay migrant workers a fair and “liveable” wage”; and (d) “to provide safe working conditions on construction sites.”

Let’s go through this post from Wikipedia: The Nepalese workers have a reputation of being hardworking, honest, cheap and not prone to complaining. According to the former Napoli (sic) ambassador to Qatar, Surynath (sic) Mishra, “Nepali migrant workers have the lowest per capita income in Qatar.” According to the Ambassador, they (sic) lack of education and technical skills mean that “They get exploited the most out of all the migrant workers.”

The above facts make it amply clear that whatever relief migrant workers, including the Nepalese, have received in Qatar recently is more because of the relentless pressure from international human rights organisation than from our government. We have, at the best, been paying lip service to our 3.5 million young men and women, including 4, 00, 000 in Qatar, whose remittances from abroad account for more than 20 per cent of Nepal’s gross domestic product. The amount is well in excess of $ 4.4 billion.

Successive regimes have never stood by them in real earnest. We have allowed or rather compelled our youth to slog, bleed and die on foreign soil without ever raising our voice with conviction and force against the injustice meted out to them. We do not go beyond raising our concern, that too as politely as we can, in our interactions with authorities and dignitaries from countries offering lowly paid job opportunities to our youth.

I felt utterly ashamed on discovering that one of the country’s higher-ups said that we would approach FIFA, world football’s governing body, to put pressure on Qatar to end its abusive migrant labour practices. What a tragi-comic decision! Why didn’t the Nepal government take up the matter forcefully with Qatar?

There is still time to act. Amnesty International is of the view that the December 13 decision is not going to change things substantially in favour of the migrant labour. Reuters has reported an Amnesty document which asserts that “workers will continue to need their employer’s permission to change jobs and will still require exit permits to leave” Qatar. The news agency quoted James Lynch, deputy director for global issues at Amnesty International, saying: “This new law gets rid of the word ‘sponsorship’ but it leaves the same basic system intact.” Abusive employers can also withhold workers’ passports under a new loophole – something that was not permissible under the previous laws, Amnesty International added.

So, what should the Nepal government do immediately? It should crack the whip on unscrupulous placement agencies which extort heavy fees from our youth for arranging jobs abroad, including Qatar. This is vital because governments and companies in Qatar and other employment destinations do not usually charge any fees from aspiring employees. Even before leaving Nepal our youth is burdened with a debt thanks to these shady agencies. What stops us from doing that? This can ensure considerable relief immediately to those seeking jobs on foreign shores as well as to their families in Nepal. Will the prevailing corruption from top to bottom let this happen easily? But we cannot let the status quo prevail. Surgical strikes will have to be made against the known and hidden miscreants.

On a higher plain, how long will our powers that be fail and falter to transform Nepal into, at least, a self-sustained economy? We are the only country in the sub-continent to have been independent all along. We can’t blame any colonial master for our present plight.

How long will our youth be made to fly to distant shores to work as lowly paid unskilled labours, carpenters, masons, plumbers, guards, doormen or, at best, mercenary soldiers?  When will vocational training for higher and universally sought skills become a reality in Nepal?

Much more than resources, we need will and vision to accomplish this modest objective.

I don’t see it around. Do you?

bashant-chaudharyBasant Chaudhary is a Poet, Writer, The Chairman of BLC and Basant Chaudhary Foundation. ([email protected])

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