The measures taken to prevent Nepali women from travelling to the Gulf are only making things worse

6 min read
04 Aug 2017
6 min read
2660 words
The many Nepali women, who travel, often illegally, to Gulf countries looking for jobs, often find themselves trapped in difficult work milieu

Rama's lips were torn apart when her boss smacked her on the face with a steel cloth-hanger. Her boss had discovered her talking to her children on the phone--and she wasn't supposed to be talking on the phone with her children and 'wasting time'. When she returned to Nepal, social workers discovered that her body was covered with bruises. Bimala once 'served' a pair of shoes on a tea-serving tray. She had been at the receiving end of verbal abuse by her employer, for days, and when her employer had ordered her to get him some tea, Bimala, who didn't understand Arabic, had panicked and brought him shoes on a tray. She was hit with the same shoes until her body turned purple. Sarala, a caretaker, was beaten for hours for putting eardrops in her boss's eyes. Like Bimala, Sarala didn't understand Arabic, which led to her administering the wrong medicine.

All these women (their names have been changed) were working as domestic workers in countries in the Gulf. They were working under such horrendous conditions because they were employed in a sector where there are no mechanisms for monitoring how the workers are treated. Many Nepali women have over the years travelled, often illegally, to Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to find work. And for those working without papers, or those working illegally, such a difficult work milieu is what they find themselves trapped in. The Nepal Government's response to the problem has been to institute an age-criteria for women or to institute outright bans on women travelling outside of Nepal to find work. But that response has not stemmed the outbound flow, nor made things better for Nepali women workers.

Janeit Gurung

Restrictions, bans, revisions

In March 2017, the Nepali parliament's International Relations and Labour Committee banned Nepali women from working in the Gulf countries. This ban affects female migrant workers, who, according to Department of Foreign Employment, account for 4.28 per cent of total migrant workers' population. This is not the first time the Government of Nepal has imposed a ban on Nepali female migrant workers. In 1998, female migrants were prohibited from migrating without the consent of a responsible male figure such as a father or husband. Another clause was then added to the ban, which required female workers to obtain additional permission from the government to migrate for work, further restricting their freedom to mobility. The ban was partially lifted in 2003, and women were allowed to migrate for work, but only in the formal sector--which is regulated, and comprises jobs in which wages are paid on a regular basis. Domestic work was still banned. That ban was lifted in 2010. Then on August 2012, Nepal again implemented the ban--but this time, it applied only to migrant women workers under the age of 30. On April 2015, the government revised the restriction on the age ban, from under 30 to under 24. Two years later, in 2017, all women migrants were banned from working in the Gulf.  

They are going anyway and how?

Labour experts and social workers say that the ban and age restrictions are actually making things worse for women. "Because they need the money, they go to the Gulf anyway. Such a protectionist approach is always going to be counterproductive," says Manju Gurung, a migrant worker advocate who heads Pourakhi, a Nepali agency that promotes the welfare of women migrant workers. According to the Department of Foreign Employment, approximately 170,000 Nepali women have gone abroad for work between 2006 and mid 2017. 

They constitute an estimated 15 per cent of the total Nepalis working in
the Gulf and Malaysia, most of whom entered the countries through informal channels. 

Desperate women living in poverty often resort to desperate means to get out of the country. Many women seek employment opportunities abroad through unscrupulous recruiting agents, and have to put up with discriminatory hiring processes. In order to pay for the recruitment and processing fees, they either take out large loans at extremely high interest rates; and some even agree to have their first four or five months of salary go directly to the agents (who often provide them the loan). "Some female migrant workers alter their age on their travel documents," says Janeit Gurung, programme development manager at Maiti Nepal, a non-profit organisation dedicated to helping victims of sex trafficking.  She says girls use padded bras and make-up to fake their age and get through various transit points. According to Janeit Gurung, the majority of Nepali migrant women are under the age of 30. "Many of these women go through illegal channels and use India as a route because of the ban," says Janeit Gurung. "They want to go to the Gulf because doing so presents their only option to escape poverty."

Manju Gurung

Sunil K Pokharel, former Secretary General of Nepal Bar Association, says that the ban seeks to ensure the safety of female migrant workers--like Rama, Bimala and Sarala--in the Gulf countries. "However, both the age limit and the ban do not address the  underlying issues and the gravity of the problem--which is their need to make a living," says Pokharel. 

The Kafala problem

Many female migrant workers who have worked in the domestic sector in Gulf countries have fallen prey to sexual and physical violence because they were working under the Kafala system. The Kafala system tied the workers to their employers in a visa sponsorship system, meaning they could only switch jobs with their employers' permission. The Kafala system, which is still used in the UAE and Qatar, allows the employers to feel that they have complete control over the maid and that they will not be reprimanded for mistreating their workers. This system chains domestic workers to their employers and leaves them isolated and at risk of abuse behind the closed doors of private homes. And although several changes have been recently made in the Kafala system to improve the rights of migrant workers in general, and in some cases, the rights of domestic workers, the new changes only seem to get rid of the word 'sponsorship'--leaving the system intact. For instance, in June 2014, the UAE revised the standard domestic worker's contract to require a weekly day off and eight hours of rest in any 24-hour period. However, according to Human Rights Watch, the contract did not address other issues, such as limits on working hours, and labour laws to protect workers. 

For most migrant women, who reach their destination countries after having gone through harrowing journeys through India and other stops, the end of the journey is just the beginning of their problems. Many of them don't know anything about the work they are supposed to be doing and the conditions they will be working under. Almost all can't speak a word of Arabic. Many suffer years of abuse because they are under pressure to earn as much as they can to repay their loans, and many suffer because they feel trapped by the Kafala system, or even by the newer replacements for the Kafala.

Sunil K Pokharel

Solution 1: Creating bilateral treaties

Manju Gurung says the first thing the Nepal Government needs to do is negotiate with the destination countries and have bilateral agreements with them regarding work conditions for Nepali women--instead of implementing a blanket ban on its women. The women will leave Nepal anyway. In 2015, the Government of Nepal had adopted a policy based on a report created by the Ministry of Labour and Employment, entitled Guidelines Regarding Sending of Domestic Workers on Foreign Employment. The guidelines stated that the Government of Nepal would send workers for foreign employment only after signing bilateral agreements with destination countries. As an alternative, recruitment agencies could send domestic workers to destination countries without a bilateral agreement, so long as there was an agency-to-agency agreement with the destination country. But such bilateral treaties have yet to be signed with the Gulf countries. "Furthermore, the government fails to see the exploitative practices that are widespread in the recruitment industry," says  Sunil Pokharel. "The government should focus on the conditions of migrant workers in destination countries, but they also need to monitor how recruitment practices are conducted within the country of origin," adds Pokharel. Recruiting agencies in Nepal control most aspects of the migration process, with virtually no oversight from the government. And the deals they strike for women migrant workers leave a lot to be desired.

Pokharel suggests that female migrant workers should also opt for safer countries to go to. According to the Ministry of Labour and Employment, although there are comparatively smaller numbers of migrants going to the Republic of Korea, the country has emerged as a favourable destination country in the past eight years largely because of the government-to-government agreement that enables good wages and good living and working conditions. In 2008, the Government of Nepal issued a directive to allow for the smooth implementation of the Employment Permit System (EPS). According to the EPS Korea Section records, a total of 33,960 labour migrants (31,771 men and 2,189 women) have participated in the programme since 2008. "Just as with the Republic of Korea, there should be government-to-government agreement with every single country of work destination," says Pokharel.

Option 2: Providing skill-based training

The Safer Migration Project (SaMi), under the Swiss organisation Helvetas, provides potential migrant workers with accurate and relevant information on safer migration so that they can make an informed decision to protect themselves from fraud, exploitation and trafficking. SaMi know that it's exceedingly important to send abroad only trained workers. "Age restriction and bans are not solutions. It is important to develop skilled human resources to a competitive capacity to maximise the benefits from foreign employment," says SaMi Team Leader Sita Ghimire. Based on the study of marketplace demand of the destination country they are focusing on right now (Jordan), potential female migrant workers are given garment-tailoring training at SaMi. "Women won't have to go through the illegal and risky channels if they are made aware of the entire migration process and are trained in skills demanded by the marketplace. On the demand side, market linkage and access to finance will increase female migrant workers' productivity," says Ghimire. Similarly, says Sunil Pokharel, many women can also be trained in other areas such as housekeeping (for hotels and hospitals), factory work and in customer service. Countries like Israel, Lebanon, Malaysia and Korea, which have been deemed as safer destinations for female migrant workers, need trained women migrant workers. And yet, Nepali women are not being trained. 

Sita Ghimire

Why is the training not happening?

In most villages and towns in Nepal, the notion that women should be working abroad is still frowned upon. Thus, although today there are many vocational-skill training centres scattered across Nepal, women cannot be seen to be undertaking training in these places. Meaning, even if a woman is of legal age to work abroad, she will, in all likelihood, refrain from getting at least some skills she can use in the markets abroad and opt for domestic work. As for those women under the age of 24 and living in dire poverty, it makes more sense to hope to find some salvation abroad, and they make up their mind to leave despite the restrictions. These women obviously don't undergo any sort of skills training. They usually make deals with unscrupulous agents and go through informal channels to the Gulf countries. And end up working, at best as domestic workers in a Gulf country, or at worst are shipped to Africa, where they are forced to work in seedy bars. Some can't even make it out of India (the usual transit country), where they are forced to work in brothels.

The government, say social workers, needs to understand that instead of coming up with bans, they need to start encouraging women to undergo skills training. The most that the government is doing right now is providing female migrant workers free training for 21 days. The training focuses on giving them information about their nature of work, and culture of the country of destination. However, migrant worker advocates suggest that neither the 21-day training period, nor the content of the training, is enough.

More knowledge should be integrated into the training, especially information generated from interactions with migrant women returnees. Or the government should be honest enough to admit that many women will end up working in the domestic sector. Since that's a given, at a minimum, the Nepali government should provide Arabic classes for women and teach them how to handle household gadgets. Social workers here say that the government is right to be concerned about the abuse against female migrants like Rama, Sarla and Bimala. However, the right response to the problem would be to  ensure that women migrate with guarantees for their safety. And the best guarantee is to provide skills for jobs in countries that have bilateral labour treaties with Nepal and that need skilled Nepali women workers.

(Photos by Nirnit Tandukar, Maiti Nepal, Pourakhi Nepal and Kantipur Archive)