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

KATHMANDU With 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.

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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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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