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Over 3,000 Nepalese migrant workers have died in Saudi Arabia since the year 2000. This number represents only those deaths officially recorded by the embassy, meaning the actual death toll is likely greater – official records are generally the only resource for migrant-related statistics, but they are often flawed and fragmented.
This number, though tragically high, is unsurprising. In the past few years, the mounting death rate of Nepali workers has been acknowledged and condemned several times over. More astounding is the Nepali embassy’s explanation of these deaths; Ambassador Udaya Raj Pandey claimed that “food habits and hot climate”, as well as unemployment and cultural differences, are responsible for the steady loss of Nepali lives. He thus shoulders the the brunt of the blame on migrant workers, rather than on Saudi’s inadequate migrant labor laws or the Nepali government’s own failed policies.
The absurdities of the ambassador’s statement are multifold; Some migrant deaths, of course, may be attributed to “food habits and hot climate,” or to similarly ‘natural causes’ in general. But how can these mundane characteristics explain such an exorbitant number of deaths? Pandey expanded his statement to identify alcoholism as one of these particularly dangerous “food habits.” The allegedly excessive rate of alcoholism amongst Nepali migrant workers (which Pandey states accounts for 20-30 deaths a month) must have, itself, an explanation – what is driving workers en masse to (purportedly) find solace in alcohol? Perhaps the documented, exploitative conditions migrants endure in Saudi, including physical abuse, excruciating workloads, and hazardous working conditions, are cause for excessive consumption.
Furthermore, how can the “hot climate” account for a significant portion of Nepali deaths? Could the reason be that, in the absence of sufficient labor laws, migrants are working long hours in the direct heat of the sun, for many too hours a day and with too few breaks?
These suggestions are not unfounded assumptions or theoretical possibilities. They are based on the reports and personal records of migrants, including Nepali workers. Though migrants have slowly gained some labor rights over the past ten years, such as minimum wage guarantees, their conditions remain precarious. Even the meager capitulations to demands from migrant-sending countries are underenforced in Saudi, which renders exploitation a systematic condition of employment. Furthermore, these sparse legislative ‘protections’ generally do not extend to domestic workers, who are often referred to as the nation’s “invisible population” because of their virtually a-legal existence under the sponsorship system. Domestic workers are consequently subject to the stewardship of their employers, which often means they are overworked at best, and at worse, are forced to endure a range of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse.
The other claims made by the Ambassador are also problematic; why would the purported inability of Nepalese migrants to integrate (or understand) Saudi culture account for a single death? In what situation is it feasible that migrants may die because they don’t understand the local culture? Who is killing them, and why aren’t they held accountable? What prevents Nepalese workers from ‘integration’? The discriminatory nature of both official policies and wider society in general represents one of the greatest obstacles to integration. Migrants cannot acclimate to violence and other forms of subjugation. It follows that the alleged ‘lack of cultural orientation’ is largely the product of society’s chronic discrimination against migrant workers. The responsibility of integration cannot lie solely or even primarily with migrant workers.
The feebleness of the Ambassador’s claims are in part due to the general lack of inquiry in Nepalese death cases.
“On an average per day, two to three coffins are coming back to Nepal mostly from the Gulf countries,” said sociologist Ganesh Gurung, a member of Nepal’s government task force for foreign labor reform.
The official reason for the deaths vary, but once the bodies make it to Nepal the cause of death is rarely if ever investigated further. [Source]
In turn, Nepal’s desire to maintain good economic relationships with Saudi Arabia largely explains this misdirection of responsibilities. Saudi and the wider Gulf region employ a large number of Nepalese citizens, whose remittances in turn account for a significant portion (approximately 25%) of the GDP. Sending-nations often adopt subordinate diplomatic postures to avoid disrupting the flow of workers. This includes acceding easily to false promises of reform and ultimately accepting sub-standard concessions.
Pandey also accepts only minimal responsibility on behalf of Nepal. Pandey claims the absence of adequate cultural integration programs is Nepal’s greatest oversight, though we maintain doubt that ‘culture’ is a major factor in Nepali deaths. He does not mention Nepal’s failure to procure rights for migrant workers in the Gulf or to regulate exploitative employment agencies.
The ambassador does propose one credible suggestion that addresses government accountability – the formation of a larger rescue and legal aid fund for migrant workers. Currently, over 200 Nepalis are imprisoned in Saudi. Sending-governments in general fail to provide detained citizens with the resources they need to ensure a fair trial abroad. The absence of translating services and lawyers means migrants are often the victims of legal systems that are already predisposed to treat them unfairly. The legal fund could aid migrants who are unjustly sentenced to death – a frequent occurrence in Saudi.
However, the insight provided by a labor expert interviewed in the Himalaya Times is much for comprehensive. He states that the Nepali government must regulate the entire migration sector more closely, from recruitment agencies to the employers themselves. The Nepali government’s primary duty is to ensure the safety of its citizens. The Ambassador’s poorly veiled attempt to deflect responsibility from Nepal and from Saudi Arabia perpetuates diplomatic inaction and contributes to the culture of silence that characterizes migrant worker abuse.