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Forgotten Populations: a lack of diplomatic representation adds to Gulf migrants' woes

On December 24, 2008

Many labour-sending countries do not maintain embassies in a number of Gulf states, leaving migrant workers even more vulnerable in cases of abuse by their employers. The example of Nepal, now a major sending country, illustrates the problems that migrants face when they don't have sufficient diplomatic representation in the Gulf. The following opinion piece (written by one of the Migrant Rights team) ran in Nepali daily newspaper The Kathmandu Post earlier this week.

The Gulf States’ army of remittance workers must run the gauntlet of risky working conditions, corrupt employers and often crippling debt obligations before they can send their hard-earned wages back to their home countries, and have few places to turn to for assistance if they find themselves in trouble. The Gulf is a dangerous place for migrant labourers from all over the developing world, but the situation of Nepali workers is particularly precarious, since Nepal does not maintain embassies in several Gulf countries, leaving workers unable to access diplomatic support in cases of abuse, accidents or pay disputes. Globalisation has brought the Gulf countries a windfall of cheap labour, which governments and corporations alike have been quick to use- and abuse – as they race one another to build up glitzy megacities and infrastructure projects. But Nepal has been slow off the mark in providing its citizens with the support they need as they grapple with the dangers and iniquities of migrant life.

A quick scan of the local press in countries such as Bahrain and the UAE often reveals a litany of fatalities, industrial accidents, and pay disputes involving South Asian construction workers and domestic staff, although these rarely receive any coverage or investigation beyond a mention in the news shorts. The media in the Gulf States prefers to devote column inches to stories of foreign investment and ambitious building projects, keeping the dark underbelly of their economies out of the public eye. But it is precisely this dark side of the Gulf that most Nepalis inhabit when they join the region’s blue-collar workforce.

It comes as a surprise to even the most educated Arabs that Nepal is now such a major supplier of labour to the Gulf. ‘Do Nepalis really need embassies here?’ one incredulous academic and political scientist said to me during a recent trip to Bahrain when rights for migrant workers came up in conversation ‘There must only be about five or six of them it this part of the world, at most. Remember that Nepal is a small country’.

The truth is that well over one and a half million Nepalis work in the Gulf States, where the stereotype of the Nepali as hardworking, loyal and willing to take on the dangerous or dirty jobs that locals shun is alive and well. Despite the risks, a rising number of Nepalis are heading overseas for work; Nearly 220,000 Nepalis migrated for employment in the 2007-8 financial year, compared with 104,736 in 2001-2, the majority leaving for low-skilled jobs in the Gulf and Malaysia. However, the death toll is rising too; over 700 Nepalis labourers died in the Gulf States in 2007, according to reports from Nepali Embassies, including 153 in Qatar, 49 in the UAE and a staggering 301 in Saudi Arabia. Only 49% of the deaths reported in Saudi Arabia were thought to have been due to natural causes, while the rest were attributed to cardiac arrests, industrial accidents and suicides. Heart attacks are now a common phenomenon among Nepali labourers in the Gulf, even the young and healthy, thought to be the result of working on construction sites in blazing temperatures.

For the most part Nepali labourers and domestics leave home with little idea of what to expect in the Gulf, and few places to turn if they run into trouble. Existing embassies in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates provide vital backup to Nepalis, especially to housemaids fleeing abusive employers, but an insufficient number ILO-labour attachés struggle to cope with the volume of the demands for help. In a recent interview, Surya Nath Mishra, Nepali Ambassador to Qatar, revealed that the embassy in Doha receives as many as 100 requests per day for intervention in disputes over pay and conditions.

Under its Foreign Labour Act of 1985 (reviewed in 2007) Nepal is required to provide embassies in all countries where more than 5000 of its citizens work, but it has, for the most part failed to do this, and remittance workers in the Gulf are paying a heavy price. With no embassy of their own in Kuwait and Bahrain, Nepalis have to undertake a costly and time-consuming journey to Saudi Arabia to access diplomatic support, or must put themselves at the mercy of the host country’s legal system. But in many cases, the embassy in Riyadh is just too far away. In October this year 125 Nepalis arriving in Bahrain to work with a security firm were stranded at the airport after their sponsor cancelled their contract, and were held under tight security by Bahraini authorities until the Nepali government eventually stepped in to arrange their transport home.

These workers were among the lucky ones; countless others in find themselves entirely cut off from all channels of support when faced with a crisis. Around 30,000 Nepalis work in Kuwait, and around 30 Nepali housemaids – most with children born out of wedlock – are languishing in jails, unable to contact an embassy to secure legal advice or repatriation. One Nepali woman, 29-year old Dolma Sherpa, is on death row after being accused of murdering her Philippina room-mate while their Kuwaiti employer was away on the Haj pilgrimage last year. The details of the case remain patchy; Dolma allegedly killed the woman after the Nepali was caught meeting her lover in secret. Dolma’s was a rare example of a case which received any international support or media attention. Her husband, Ang Tenzi Sherpa, who was working as a cook in an American military camp in neighbouring Iraq, returned to Nepal immediately after hearing of her sentence, and begged the Nepali government for help. The result was that Nepal’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Hamid Ansari, mounted an international campaign to save Dolma’s life. As of the last update from the campaign, Dolma is still in jail awaiting the verdict of an appeal. Had her husband not been nearby and able to raise the alert, Dolma would have been left at the hands of the Kuwaiti justice system with no legal support, and most likely would have been added to growing number of Nepalis who don’t make it back home from the Gulf.

Since the governments of the Gulf States appear to have washed their hands of any responsibility for the welfare of migrant labourers, the Nepali government needs to radically rethink the level of support it provides for its citizens working in the region. The phrase ‘out of sight, out of mind’ seems to sum up the attitude of host countries towards Nepali workers in the Gulf, where there is a dangerous misperception that they are an insignificant and forgettable minority from a faraway land. Now it falls to Nepal’s government to ensure that it does not replicate this attitude with regards to its own brave remittance men and women in the Gulf.