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Migrant Lives

In Nepal, Where Slavery's New Road Begins And Ends

Some 400,000 people leave the country every year to work abroad, often recruited by agencies that are really human traffickers. A close-up view of the human toll in Katmandu.

Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport
Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport
Vanessa Dougnac

KATHMANDUWith tense hands, they clutch their boarding passes. Promises of a better life start here, at the international airport of Nepal's bustling capital.

This morning, more than 30 soon-to-be emigrants are waiting in line in front of the check-in counter, set to take off for work opportunities in Malaysia or the Gulf States. Having never been on a plane before, one can see fear in the eyes of many these young mountain people. They all wear the same baseball cap — with the logo of the agency that recruited them on it - as if they were schoolchildren who might get lost.

This scene is part of the ongoing exodus of 400,000 Nepalese who fly out every year, as the estimated total now is some 2.5 million under temporary contract abroad (Nepal's total population is 27 million) that doesn't even account for the Nepalese working in neighboring India.

Not everything about this migration is bad: The money Nepali foreign workers send home represents 25% of Nepal's GDP. But there is a very dark side that has become a national issue here: too many of those working abroad wind up as essentially modern-day slaves.

Outside the airport, the Himalayan summits are visible in the crystal-blue winter sky. Chakra Bahadur Bista, a country peasant wearing a beany and an oversized jacket, is surrounded by relatives. The elderly man is about to receive an awful delivery: his son’s casket.

Tej Bista died two weeks earlier in Malaysia at the age of 23. He'd worked for Brick Dotcom, a brickyard located near Kuala Lumpur. An airport employee hands over the deceased’s passport to the shaking father. A cousin takes the death certificate: “severe pneumonia,” it says.

The father says he does not understand. “My son phoned me the day he died,” he says. “He complained about his salary and vacation deductions. But he wasn’t ill." In the evening, they got a call from one of his friends who reported that he'd suddenly felt bad and died on the way to the hospital.

Mahendra Pandey, the head of the NGO Pravasi Nepali Coordination Committee (PNCC), explains says too often the health of Nepalese immigrants is imperiled by the lack of food, excessive work hours and their "deplorable conditions."

The official causes of death are often false, and almost always offer signs of the conditions: heart failure, traffic accident, suicide, workplace accident. The PNCC deals with more than 40 emergency repatriations per day and has a transit house for the victims in Kathmandu.

A chilling confession

In one of the rooms, Salit Mandal, 26, is regaining his strength. “I worked in a printing house in Malaysia for $200 per month,” he says. “But the right side of my body became paralyzed.”

Mahendra Pandey is waiting to receive his medical file to try, without much hope, to take the case to court. “There’s a huge number of accidents,” he says. “But nevertheless, Nepalis want to leave, whatever the cost.”

The paralyzed worker agrees: “There’s nothing in Nepal.”

On condition of anonymity, a recruiting agent makes a chilling confession: “We know very well that, of the 1,200 Nepalese leaving every day, at least 100 will have serious problems.”

In addition to deteriorating health and fatal accidents, they are vulnerable in other ways. In Malaysia, they get caught up in the web of local organized crime networks. In Qatar, the kafala sponsorship system requires foreign workers to give their passports to their employers, which makes them totally dependant.

In a rundown ministry, a state employee in charge of repatriating the bodies agrees to share his data: “For the past year, we have registered 779 repatriated bodies from Gulf countries and Malaysia. And Qatar isn't the worst.”

Renewed attention came after The Guardian newspaper and Amnesty International revealed the investigation of Nepalis who died last summer in Qatar, sometimes “treated like animals” on construction sites for the 2022 World Cup. The affair came as a shock for the Western world.

Since then, the pressure has been mounting on Qatar, but other countries are overlooked. “We have counted 54 caskets repatriated from Qatar, but 212 from Malaysia and 300 from Saudi Arabia,” the employee says. The Saudi toll is partially attributed to the transition from air-conditioned compartments to the outside heat, which proves too often to be fatal for exhausted workers from this mountainous country will cool temperatures.

Outside the airport’s arrival doors, Chakra Bahadur Bista, the father, is waiting. Two cousins have gone to receive his son’s casket. One of the security officers confirms matter-of-factly: “We see at least two caskets go by every day,” he says.

The one carrying Tej Bista eventually arrives, laid on two carts. The father stumbles as he sees it, and begins to quietly weep. He comes from Razapani, a village of the Khotang District in eastern Nepal, where more than 200 men currently working abroad. More than 10 have returned in a casket. On the pavement, the “delivery” is carried to a van, between hordes of Western trekkers and hotel staff members waiting for their clients, none of whom notices the passing casket.

Agency lies, a funeral

The first in the chain of responsibility for these tragedies are the hiring agencies in Kathmandu. Their names are full of promise: Blue Sky, SOS, River, Lucky, Florid, Paradise, a jungle of 700 accredited agencies and 400 approved agents. In the villages, the people trust the local agents and are scammed easily. As they rack up debts with high interest rates, the candidates pay up to $1,000 for the hiring services, files, medical exam, plane ticket. “These agencies’ procedures are illegal: exorbitant fees but also the irregularities in the contracts, misleading advertising on the working conditions and the actual wages,” Mahendra Pandey says.

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In Kathmandu — Photo: Wonderlane

“These agencies are scum!” says less politely, Ganesh Bahadur Karko, who spent six years in Saudi Arabia. “They promise one thing, and when we arrive there, we discover something else.” He saw six of his co-workers die on the construction site they were assigned to.

The day before their departure, the candidates come down from the mountains to Kathmandu, barely knowing anything about their contract, nor able to read or speak English. At the agency, these non-qualified workers attend a basic orientation class, their only weapon to face the unknown. Some big agencies, such as River, are known for their embezzlements. SOS even sent hundreds of workers to Libya in 2011, when the country was in the middle of a civil war!

“Influential businessmen, protected by politicians, use other activities to mask their agencies,” Kathmandu Post journalist Sundar Khanal charges.

Maurizio Busatti, head of mission at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) says all such agencies should face inspections and quality tests. “Nepal is not at all organized to deal with this market,” he says. With five different governments in five years after a decade of civil war, the government has trouble fighting corruption and the spread of fake work permits.

The competition between agencies is fierce. “Thanks to my offices in Dubai and Kuala Lumpur, I can select serious companies”, says Ramesh Parajuli, the shiny-suited head of the Florid agency. “But if I reject an offer, someone else will accept it.”

Parajuli assures that he had “only two dead” last year, in Malaysia. “The agencies at fault should be punished more,” he says. “And the governmental power should be strengthened.” But he sees no problem in ordering his recruits, in Nepalese, to tell us that the hiring fees are four times lower than the actual amount.

His motto hangs on the agency's wall: “Let’s change the world together.”

Tej Bista’s casket is brought by van to the temple of Pashupati, on the Bagmati riverbank, next to the airport. His father was too poor to repatriate the body back to his village, so the cremation takes place here. Men open the casket. “It’s him”, a cousin says. “Except he’s got a beard.” The body is placed on a funeral pyre before being undressed and covered in a white shroud.

“He was a good boy,” an uncle says. “He just wanted to help his family.” The pyre is lit. The elderly farmer stares at his son’s body disappearing into ashes and smoke.

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