Nepal’s crackdown on migrant worker exploitation
According to the department of foreign employment, more than 200 agencies have been punished since mid-February, with suspensions and fines of up to 200,000 rupees (£1,250). Offences include overcharging migrants, establishing illegal branches, taking passports without permission, and making false promises about pay and conditions. Nine agencies have been shut for operating without a licence.
“It has had a great impact. Previously there were so many illegal activities, but nowadays [the recruitment agencies] are very careful,” said Krishna Hari Pushkar, the department’s new director general.
The clampdown is part of Operation De Pogo, a shakeup of the migrant recruitment process initiated by Pushkar amid concern about the exploitation of Nepal’s migrants at home and abroad.
“The operation is named after the pogo dance. It is all about changing position quickly and efficiently,” explained Pushkar, who has been charged with overhauling the department amid allegations of corruption.
In August 2013, 17 officers were arrested for issuing fake documents. In March, a further nine were detained for offences that occurred before Pushkar’s appointment.
The recruitment agencies – also known as manpower companies – initially reacted with protests, bribes and threats, he says, but this has not fazed him. “It’s normal for me. I know how to manage the risks and security threats,” said Pushkar, who has a solid record of tackling corruption. “They come and talk now instead.”
However, Bal Bahadur Tamang, president of the Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies, argues that that most of the blame lies not with manpower companies, but with the local brokers who recruit prospective migrants and put them forward to agencies.
“The problem is at the local level, before the migrants even reach the manpower companies. Our agencies are charging 10-20,000 rupees for each migrant, but the local brokers charge 100,000 rupees and keep the difference for themselves,” Tamang said. “We are trying to solve the problem, but it has not been resolved yet.”
Migrant rights groups remain unconvinced that there are signs of real change. Rameshwar Nepal, director of Amnesty International in Nepal, which in 2011 published a report highlighting the problems of migrant recruitment in the country, said: “I don’t think the crackdown is as sufficient as required. If you look at what happened in the past, manpower agents were booked for minor breaches, like not being properly registered, but not for substantive violations of the law, such as deception and fraud. If you see the gravity of the problem, the action taken by the government is simply not enough … There have been some changes, which is a welcome step, but very few and very minor.”
He cites the Social Welfare Fund, which is administered by the foreign employment promotion board (FEPB) and consists of contributions from migrants, who must each donate 1,000 rupees. It is meant to be used to pay compensation to the families of migrants who die overseas, as well as to the injured. However, despite the scale of the problems faced by Nepalese migrants, the fund has a surplus of more than £14m – a significant increase on six months ago.
Tika Bhandari, acting executive director of the FEPB, justified the surplus,arguing that it might be needed to rescue large numbers of migrants should they face problems abroad, but added that increasing awareness of the fund would mean more compensation claims. “Migrants were not aware of the fund two years ago, but now they are informed of it at their pre-departure orientation training,” Bhandari said.
The training, however, which is designed to prepare migrants for life and work abroad, is woefully inadequate, according to Nilambar Badal, director of the Migrants’ Centre,.
“There have been some improvements at the department of foreign employment … [but] there have been no visible improvements in pre-departure orientation,” Badal said. “When we ask migrants at the airport where they are going, sometimes they do not even know. We are always hopeful [things will improve], but we have been hopeful for the past five years and nothing has changed.”
Whatever advances are made in Nepal, Pushkar says more needs to be done in destination countries. “Qatar has made some progress. It is taking the issue seriously, but it still needs to do a lot,” he said. “They only connect with our migrants for the purpose of deportation and imprisonment. They should take care of the migrants’ rights, and accommodation. This part is totally missing. Abolishing the kafala system [which binds the worker to a single employer] would be a good start – it would really help – but it will not solve all the problems.”
Whether Pushkar’s initiatives will have a lasting effect is a moot point. For now, the risk remains that Operation De Pogo will be remembered for the more widely recognised definition of the pogo dance: to jump up and down without going anywhere.