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Majority of Nepal migrant deaths ‘should be treated as murder’

Pete Pattisson, KATHMANDU: More than 90% of deaths of Nepalese migrant workers should be treated as murder, a senior government official has said.

Krishna Hari Pushkar, former director general of the department of foreign employment in Nepal, said only a fraction of the rising numbers of migrant deaths overseas could be classified as natural. “These days, we have changed our perspective. Whenever we receive a report of a death, we will not simply accept it as a natural death. Unless the employer can prove it’s a natural death, we will file a case against them on the charge of murder,” said Pushkar, who is now joint secretary of the government.

His comments follow an extensive assessment of the causes of migrant deaths, during which government officials visited major destination countries to study death records and interview employers and staff.

“Workers, especially construction workers, are under a lot of stress. This can lead to death from a brain haemorrhage or cardiac arrest,” Pushkar said. “The employers call this a natural death, but when we talked to [the deceased worker’s] colleagues, they said they were forced to work beyond their capacity to meet their employer’s targets.”

However, Suresh Man Shrestha, the labour and employment ministry secretary, dismissed the use of the term murder. “I wouldn’t describe it in that way. It’s not all the responsibility of the employer,” he said. “But what makes us suspicious is why 20-, 25-, 30-year-olds are dying. Employers say it’s a natural death, but how can these be natural deaths?”

According to the latest figures released by the department of foreign employment, 3,105 Nepalese migrants died abroad between mid-2006 and April 2014, with the highest number of deaths recorded in Malaysia, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Fifty-three Nepalese workers died in Qatar between January and 13 April this year alone.

The statistics also raise serious questions about how such deaths are classified. Some 366 Nepalese are recorded as having died from cardiac arrest in Qatar, but only 28 in neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

The figures, which are based on the records of the foreign employment promotion board, are likely to significantly underestimate the actual number of deaths as the board records only the number of families of deceased workers who apply for compensation.

“We have talked to senior officials in destination countries and have asked them to pay serious attention to these deaths,” Pushkar said. “They have assured us they are taking it seriously, but their commitment has been limited … they never regulate and never want to go to see the conditions of the migrants.”

He called for a more rigorous response when migrant workers die, including postmortems, interviews with the deceased’s colleagues, rapid repatriation of bodies and, where appropriate, prosecution of employers. His proposals echo the recommendations of a report into the condition of migrant workers in Qatar by the law firm DLA Piper, which was published last week. It calls for an independent study into migrant worker deaths by cardiac arrest.

The report, commissioned by the Qatari authorities after a Guardian investigation into the treatment of migrant workers, proposes that such deaths are properly classified and investigated so preventive measures can be taken.

DLA Piper’s recommendations informed last Wednesday’s announcement by Qatari authorities of reforms to its labour laws, including a proposal to replace the kafala system, which prevents expatriate workers leaving their job or the country without their employer’s permission.

“We won’t comment in detail until and unless our migrants and government really feel the reforms are put into practice,” Pushkar said in response to the proposed changes. “For now we can only say that the move is a step in the right direction. We believe that Qatar still has to do a lot in the coming days if it really wants to bring about positive change … and to prove that it is a migrant-friendly country, where there is no longer the smell of injustice, exploitation and abuse.”

Rameshwar Nepal, director of Amnesty International in Nepal, was equally cautious. “On my visits to Qatar I found many Nepalese migrants working in a forced labour situation … predominantly because of the ‘exit permit’ system,” he said.

“It is not clear how the proposed reforms to the exit permit will work in practice, and whether under the new proposal employers will retain the ability to object to workers leaving the country … If workers continue to have to rely on employers to leave, it will not solve the problems of many migrants.”

Note: Nepalese construction worker Om Kumar Chaudhary in Kathmandu. He moved to the capital to prepare for a job in Qatar. Photograph by Narendra Shrestha. (Source: The Guardian)

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