Blog Archive

Blog Archive – July, 2018

Nepal Migrant Labor: A Central Pillar of Nepalís Grim Economy

July 30, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

            They appear a hapless collection of desperate village lads lured by false promises, making their way to a hostile place fraught with peril. A small but significant number perish while working abroad, shipped home in a stark wooden box. Yet millions of Nepal’s youth take imponderable risks involved. They remain away four or more years, subjected to severe climate conditions, often misled about their assignments and salaries, dismissed for minor infractions. Their numbers swell year-after-year, with remittances back to their families mounting correspondingly.

            After almost two decades of accelerating numbers feeding this global labor market and the growing dependence on cash remittances home, up to 44% of Nepal’s GDP derives from young citizens’ flight abroad.

            Is this trend inevitable? And who really benefits? 

            Inevitable, if a) merchants in Nepal’s cities continue to reap benefits by renting lodgings and supplying goods and food for a lopsided consumer economy generated and sustained by migrants’ remittances, and b) the home government continues to disregard chronic joblessness, avoiding a genuine commitment to develop industries and enhance agriculture. That’s what’s needed for real growth and jobs at home.

            Given the poor economic prospects for the vast majority of Nepalis and their disenchantment with a new democracy where parties dish out generous grants to friends, one needs to ask if Nepal’s government itself may be exploiting foreign labor demand to keep citizens’ energies directed elsewhere.

            The lure of jobs overseas is irresistible for Nepal’s able young men and women. They leave wives, parents and children; many with jobs at home relinquish them; students abandon schooling and take on debt -- all to become one of the daily 1,200+ migrants who board a plane for the Arab Gulf or Malayasia. (A 2015 Nepali Times report notes 2,500 arrive or leave daily)

            Ganesh is one of them. He set off on his Dasain holiday to the village four years ago, but never returned-- not to his part time job in Kathmandu, not to continue his schooling, not to free lodging at his cousin-auntie’s house. “He’d stayed with us since class two; he was a good student with only a year left to complete class 10. Had there been a family crisis”, she recalled, “I’d have known.”

            Her suspicion that Ganesh had gone to the Arab Gulf was confirmed after six months. His sister Didi visited Auntie-Ma’m to collect Ganesh’s bedding. She herself had left their village for Kathmandu with her baby and Ganesh’s mother. “They rent a room here in the city; she says life is easier now; there was no one to work their fields and anyway they can live in Kathmandu on what her husband and Ganesh send them.”

            Didi’s husband was in Qatar too. “Every Nepali family has someone in The Emirates, Qatar, Saudi, Malaysia” sighs Aunti Ma’m. “Here in Nepal, we can’t find carpenters to repair our building; no helpers in the kitchen; no boys to serve in the local cafes; a shortage of motor mechanics. 

            Ganesh is one of more than 4.5 million --some estimate 7 million, if migrants to India are included -- Nepali youths working in the inhospitable atmosphere of Arab Gulf states. They choose hazards abroad over farming their terraced hillsides, over whatever a middle class family may pay them as gardeners, cleaners or drivers, over the ten dollars a day they can earn (in season) as a porter hauling trekkers’ supplies through the mountains.

            This exodus of healthy young men and women from Nepal increased sharply twenty years ago when Malaysia and Arab Gulf states were recruiting unskilled laborers. At home, the situation looked unpromising, with Nepal entering a period of instability; the Maoist revolution was spreading through the countryside; development projects produced insufficient jobs and anti-monarchy protests were widening. 

            Overseas work for low wages seems to be the best option for millions of workers in a country with no industrial development and where farmers produce barely enough to meet household needs. In the 1980s, young people left villages to work in an expanding Tibetan carpet industry in Kathmandu Valley. Factory managers were unconcerned if workers were as young as 12, if they had no education and if they slept on the floor near their looms. Eventually, exploitative conditions and heavy use of child labor in the industry drew international ire. A human rights campaign on behalf of underage workers essentially shut down the carpet factories; tens of thousands became jobless. Labor brokers supplying workers for the expanding Arab Gulf market tapped that void and, year-by-year, the number of Nepalis working there rose.  

            Seeking work outside is not new to Nepal. A 2005 overview notes how, more than a century ago, Nepalis migrated to India to work in tea plantations. Starting in the 19th Century village men were recruited into British Gurkha military regiments, their numbers increasing through the two world wars. (Today, Gurkhas serve in the Indian army and with British regiments posted in Afghanistan as well.)

            Returned workers with substantial capital from their overseas work happily share evidence of improvements to their lives, changes otherwise impossible. Take Ram, for example; he set up a small factory in Nepal with his earnings. Gyelmi Lama boasts: “As a driver in Qatar, I earned 150,000 Nepali rupees ($1,500) monthly; nowadays I’m with my family in Kathmandu, and I support my parents in our village in Hetara.” He’s one of countless taxi drivers in Kathmandu Valley returned from overseas, now owning their own vehicles. Chetri was returning to Dubai where he runs a shop, mainly serving Nepali clients. KP, another outgoing passenger, manages a Nepali restaurant in Abu Dhabi catering to migrant workers, and tells me of his plans for a travel agency specializing in tours for Europeans living in the Emirates; “It’s barely four hours away; they can visit Kathmandu for a weekend!”

            Remittances sent monthly sustain workers’ families back home. (One survey indicates that by 2009, average annual income of Nepali households from remittances reached the equivalent of $1,400 and $2,100.) This allows villagers to hire a poorer relative to mind a few animals in their village, rent lodging for themselves in the city, and send children to a private school. (Government schools are so bad that even inexpensive private schools are preferred, and these too are flourishing because of remittances.) Purna who worked in Saudi Arabia spent 8,000 rupees ($80.) monthly for his daughter’s school fees. Since she’s heading to college, he has new plans for himself; “I keep my two taxis, but I stop driving; too much construction going on now; I make partner in a new business in Kavre near my village. We buy a bulldozer and make contracts to build roads.” Yes,” he asserts, “lots of business opportunity now.”

            What percentage of returned migrant workers can duplicate Purna’s, Gyelmi’s and Chetri’s endeavors is hard to calculate.

           

            Human rights investigations and early reports of migrants’ conditions in the Nepali press highlighted the human toll—extortion, fraud and abuse were widespread. (Anti-Muslim feeling in Nepal has been fueled by early reports of workers’ mistreatment by Arab employers.) Investigative journalist Devendra Bhattarai writing for Kantipur, and filmmaker Kesang Tseten drew attention to migrants’ troubles in 2010. And while improved conditions curbed severe exploitation, many migrants still suffer. Laborers’ hardships are compounded by the inability or refusal of Nepali embassies abroad to intervene on behalf of distressed citizens, or to assist them. (When one ambassador called Qatar an open jail, she was recalled.)

            Only recently has the Nepali press been willing to more closely examine the context of labor migration. The result is a sobering account of exploitation by labor brokers, mainly Indian and Nepali, beginning before workers reach their destination. (Nepali Times, 2015) Some bilateral agreements to protect workers have been negotiated and a $50. million fund in Nepal (hardly used to date) was set up for needy cases.

            Notwithstanding all the obstacles and difficulties, at the apex of those responsible sits the Nepali government. This is addressed, finally, in an excellent 2018 Nepali Times series that points to the administration’s policy failures, and exposes how officials enrich themselves off fees and bribes from would-be migrants. It asserts what others have avoided saying:-- the government is evading the need to rectify unemployment at home. “…Successive elected rulers since 1990 have masked their failure to create jobs within the country by taking the easy way out-- to export labour.”   

 

 

Aziz is a veteran anthropologist and radio journalist, also author of Heir to A Silent Song: Two Rebel Women of Nepal, published by Tribhuvan University, Nepal, and available through Barnes and Noble in USA and Canada.

 

 

           

[ Nepal Migrant Labor: A Central Pillar of Nepalís Grim Economy ]

Nepal's Economy: Can Contented Tourists Match Desperate Migrant Laborers?

July 20, 2018

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

            A busy air route between Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan Airport and overseas is via the communications hub of The Arab Emirates. Several direct flights between Abu Dhabi or Doha and Nepal depart and arrive daily. Appearing unremarkable (on any day or year over the last decade), any assemblage of passengers, outbound or inbound, itself informs the character of Nepal’s impoverished (sic) economy:--workers remittances--the major sector-- foreign aid, and tourism.

            Making my way into and from Nepal through Arab Gulf airports on a regular basis over many years, I noted a consistent composition of the 200 or so people on these flights. Inbound and outbound, they offer as genuine a portrait of the country’s economy as any generously funded study by a team of economists.

            Travelers on these flights fall into three distinct groups—1) Nepali youths employed overseas; 2) tourist-trekkers; 3) economic development personnel.

            Those occupying the majority of seats, 75% or more, are young Nepalese-- mostly men, most under 30. They dress similarly—a simple shirt and trousers, maybe a thin jacket. They check into their flight with a light knapsack or carry-on suitcase. If outbound from Nepal they sport fresh haircuts; around the necks of some hang silken kathak-- good luck scarves offered by well-wishers.

            In the departure lounge at Tribhuvan Airport, these men appear shy. Once boarded and secure in their seats, their emotion blooms as if, until then, they’d remained uncertain if they might leave the ground. Now Nepali phrases sweep around the rows of seats throughout the four-hour flight, a relaxed animated dialogue that suggests these men are old friends. In fact most, until now, were strangers.

            These Nepalis’ demeanor contrasts with the minority passengers, ‘westerners’ --European, American, Australian or New Zealander-- varying in age from 20 to 70, sometimes older and generally traveling in couples. They too carry little more than a single backpack, but double or triple the size of the Nepali youths’ gear, each branded with a recognizable sports logo. Whatever the weather, these vacationers clutch water bottles and wear sturdy climbing boots. 

            If a Business Class is designated on these short flights, you’ll find there a handful of sedate travelers, a mixed but mainly white group. Dressed casually--no sign of backpacks or climbing boosts here—they’ll tote only a computer bag. These subdued women and men are ‘development’ experts-- in Nepal to assist (with anything)-- Red Cross, UNICEF, Medicine Sans Frontiers, Norwegian hydroelectric engineers, Microsoft educational consultants, democracy monitors, Australian gender analysts, pollution appraisers and endless other NGO project staff. From the moment they’re seated, they flip through graph-laden reports, phone in hand -- all destined for yet another conference. (At the time of Nepal’s 2015 earthquake, journalists’ crowded these flights alongside NGO emergency personnel, temporarily replacing tourist travelers. Although most seats were taken by Nepali sons rushing home out of concern for loved ones.)

            There you have it: the Nepal economy in a single flight.

            The young Nepali men on the flight are all migrant laborers drawn from every corner of the nation, from a range of ethnic group. They are drivers and masons, carpenters and farmers-- lads with a few years of schooling, all new to international travel, all hopeful. Some are urban born, others villagers who’ve taken on debt to pay the fees necessary to secure overseas work. A fraction of these youths head to Malaysia; most are destined for The Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Together they constitute a force estimated to be as high as seven million Nepali laborers (officially reported as close to 4 million) employed abroad in estates, stadiums and museums, restaurants and malls, offices, houses and farms. (A handful of drivers or cooks are recruited by American security agencies in Iraq. A few migrants, mainly women, become domestics in the Arab Gulf, but most travel to Lebanon and Israel to work for families there.)    

            The white passengers in economy class are tourists. They’re working people who’ve saved for a year or more to manage their enchanted Himalayan holiday. They are a happy lot, the tourists—people infinitely patient over delayed flights and uncomplaining about days bedridden with an intestinal disease. Once airborne, they speak in whispers, while engaged writing blogs. 

            Tourists in Nepal number nearly a million annually. Their contribution to the economy (contrary to claims in Wikipedia ) however amounts to barely five percent because the business is highly centralized, visitors’ stays are short, and cheap lodgings are plentiful. (Following the earthquake, Nepal’s sophisticated tourist industry bulletins sounded an alarm of the quake’s impact on tourism. Although exaggerated, this helped mobilize funding for immediate restoration of notable temples and trekking routes. Tourist needs seemed to take priority in contrast to thousands of damaged village dwellings and public schools-- a responsibility of the Nepali government—still awaiting repair.)

            As for the non-governmental organizations, their economic impact derives less through assistance to the needy, than from their bureaucratic structures centered in the capital. Charitable fees for visiting consultants may come from headquarters. No, it’s in the sprawling local agencies where we find a significant impact on Nepal’s economy. Here, tens of thousands of salaried staff dispense (foreign aid) money into the market to sustain themselves and their offices. Together with civil servants whose salaries are supplemented by payoffs from agencies and businesses, this community now constitutes the core of Kathmandu’s sizable middle class. House owners rent to NGOs, restaurants and shops offer an atmosphere and cuisine worthy of internationals, along with staff (gardeners, drivers, cleaners, etc.) who manage their homes and offices. Many tens of thousands live off aid flowing into Nepal. They in turn need vehicles, electrical generators and washing machines; they build gated homes and hire local agencies to arrange their travel and chauffeurs to drive their children to exclusive private schools. They gather at the glass malls and shop at brand-named stores and restaurants along Durbar Marg.

            This conspicuously wealthy population of Kathmandu has emerged out of the 20,000 or more NGOs based here that offer Nepal everything-- from city sanitation services to a surfeit of agencies sheltering women and researching hydro-power--whether or not the nation really needs them. Although a substantial element in the city’s economy, the NGO financial input does not register in any official assessment of Nepal’s economy.

            In any case, the mainstay of the nation’s economy lies elsewhere. It derives from the accumulated impact of cash remittances to their families from those anxious lads who boarded planes for jobs abroad—feckless workers often characterized as exploited labor.

            Some mistreatment is undeniable, just as contract freelance workers catering to the needs of New Yorkers and Londoners are exploited. But these millions of migrants laboring where they can never become citizens transfer billions of dollars in earnings home. That is having a profound impact on Nepal’s economy. And even though that economic stimulus may be misplaced—because it drives consumerism rather than labor-intense local industries, it still transforms the life of these youths and their families that economic development plans could not.

(This dynamic, we will explore in the next of our series on Nepal.)  END

Aziz is the author of Heir to A Silent Song: Two Rebel Women of Nepal, published by Tribhuvan University in Nepal, and available through Barnes and Noble.

[ Nepal's Economy: Can Contented Tourists Match Desperate Migrant Laborers? ]


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