The government of Nepal has set out a raft of measures to prevent its citizens from being exploited when they work abroad, with particular emphasis on regulating the conduct of labour agencies that recruit workers for construction sites in the Gulf states.
Suresh Man Shrestha, secretary for labour at the Ministry of Labour and Employment, told Gulf Times that his government had stepped up its efforts to prosecute unscrupulous labour suppliers.Â
"The government can cancel the licence of recruiters who charge high service fees. Violators can be imprisoned for two years. In addition, they are liable to pay a fine of up to NR100,000 [$1,000]," he said.
One source of concern is the ability of Napalese workers to survive the harsh and unfamiliar conditions on a Gulf construction site. In Qatar, where about 400,000 Nepalese have migrated, workers died at the rate of two a day throughout 2014, it was revealed at the end of last year.
It is compulsory for workers to have a medical check-up before they travel, but agencies frequently omit this procedure. Mr Shrestha said: "Another issue is that many recruitment companies are submitting fake medical certificates. There are 203 medical centres approved by the government of Nepal. But most of them do not have enough facilities for medical check-ups. Qatar does not have approved medical centres in Nepal. Government officials make frequent raids to stop illegal recruitment and they are fruitful to a great extent."
Another source of concern is the level of wages received by expatriate workers. Of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have no minimum wage. Qatar is unusual in that it has no standardised wage; it sets individual levels depending on the country the workers comes from, however it has yet to do so for Nepalese workers. In the other GCC countries, Kuwait has the low minimum wage of $216 a month, Oman sets it at $592 and Saudi Arabia is the most generous, at $720.
In early 2013, the Nepalese embassy in Qatar told Doha News that it was asking that the minimum wage be set at $330 a month. The manager of one manpower agency told the paper that the standard salary for an unskilled worker was $250, and for a skilled worker it was $330.Â
Antoher manpower agency told Doha News that salary figures were meaningless for many employees. He said many workers sign two contracts, one stating the minimum wage needed to secure a visa, the other containing a lower number that the worker actually receives.
"Qatar has to fix a minimum wage for the Nepali workers to stop their exploitation by employers," Mr Shrestha said. "Qatari employers should bear all the expenses for recruitment so that the workers are not burdened before they reach their destination." He added that reputable companies in Qatar paid good salaries to Nepali workers. As well as the welfare of the workers, the entire economy of Nepal is tied to level of wages paid to its workers.
According to figures from the World Bank, remittances from migrant workers make up 29% of the country’s GDP, the highest in the world after Kyrgyzstan.
Other abuses flagged up my Mr Shrestha included companies changing contracts to reduce salaries after workers arrive and failing to procure residence permits, effectively stripping workers of their legal rights. He also objected to small outsourcing companies in Qatar, which, he said, were creating the biggest problems. "The margin of profit for them is very big but the workers are denied the benefits. Manpower companies are responsible for most of the flak received by Qatar from global bodies like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch."
The official also pointed out that the Nepal government had enacted a law that provided for assistance to workers who died or met with accidents abroad. "The family gets NR150,000 [£1,500]. There is also a compulsory insurance scheme for people going abroad with a provision for financial aid in case of death and accidents."Â
The reform agenda
The government of Qatar has made some efforts to reform its labour system, in particular by saying that it will replace the kafala sponsorship system with conventional contracts. However, this has yet to stem the widespread criticism of labour abuses.Â
Mr Shrestha aid that Qatar officials should hold regular meetings with the Nepali embassy to understand the workers’ problems. He also suggested cutting out the role of the middle men who are widely blamed for much of the exploitation. "If direct recruitment takes place, most of the problems can be avoided. At least 50% government recruitment and 50% private recruitment will solve the problems. We have set up direct recruitment through government channels to Korea and Israel. This has solved most of the problems there."
Another senior official at the labour ministry said Nepal has asked for a minimum wage agreement with Qatar "but Doha has not yet agreed to it".
One commentator on the Qatar labour scene told GCR that expatriate workers tend to endure the conditions and leave as soon as they have earned enough money. He said: "There are too many men who are being abused at the hands of their managers – who are just as, if not more, likely to be foreigners themselves than Qataris. Most of these men who I’ve met come across are resigned to their situation and want to simply make the best out of it and then leave the country at the earliest opportunity.Â
"We’re occasionally contacted by workers who find themselves in particularly desperate circumstances – such as those who can’t get out of the country – but I’m nevertheless left with the impression that most workers are more interested in completing their contract, getting paid and moving on, rather than redressing their grievances."
He added that many Qataris are aggrieved at the disproportionate criticism that their country receives from international NGOs, compared with others in the area. He said: "It’s my understanding that the UAE cracks down much more severely and effectively on dissent, including on its foreign workforce, than Qatar. Human rights organisations have documented many cases there. Speaking personally, I am frustrated when Qatar is condemned internationally while other countries such as the UAE get a pass for similar incidents."