Interview with Kesang Tseten, maker of ‘In Search of the Riyal’

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Apr 26 2010

Kesang Tseten is a film maker based in Kathmandu who has worked on a number of projects documenting the lives of Nepali workers in the Gulf. He is currently working on Saving Dolma, a documentary about migrant workers in Kuwait. Kesang met with Migrant Rights editor Sophia Furber in Kathmandu to discuss his observations on Gulf migration from Nepal.

Sophia Furber: How did you first get involved in making films on migrant workers?

Kesang Tseten: I'd traveled through Qatar before, and like many people I was struck by the number of migrant workers I saw. I had initially wanted to make a film about the 12 Nepali workers that were killed in Iraq in 2004, but in the end it was too difficult for me to get there to shoot. I then decided I wanted to make a film on the everyday circumstances of Nepalis going to the Gulf to work. This is also a horror story in its own right, but it's so normal.

If you talk to people of a certain class in Nepal, like the people working here (we are sitting in a fairly upmarket cafe in Kathmandu having coffee), migration to the Gulf is a hugely important part of their everyday experience. Most of them have friends or family members working in the Gulf, and a lot of them aspire to go there themselves. Migration is part of their language. So for me the story was there already for In Search of the Riyal and Saving Dolma. My aim was to make a film that explained the sociological context.


SF: Was it difficult for you to get access to migrant workers in Kuwait and Qatar? (Many live in labour camps or private homes, which makes it notoriously hard for researchers, journalists and civil society members to come into contact with them)

KT: In Kuwait I couldn't get a visa to go to shoot (for upcoming project Saving Dolma) so I had to ask other people to go to; there was an American who had worked with me before as an editor, and he went to Kuwait to shoot some footage. Alston D'Silva, an editor who is based in Kathmandu, went to shoot on my behalf in Kuwait as he grew up there, and was able to get some really great footage.

When I was in Qatar shooting In Search of the Riyal we had to shoot without permission using small, hand-held cameras - not secret cameras, though. This meant that all the footage we brought back from Qatar had a very journalistic style. For this reason I went back to Nepal to shoot more footage so that I could give a fuller picture and show the background to the story.

The Nepali communities in both Qatar and Kuwait were really helpful to me and my team. We were effectively embedded in the Nepali community when I went to shoot there. The Nepali community there are very conscious of being migrants, and because of this there are a lot of societies set up by Nepalis so that they can help one another. There are 116 migrant associations in Qatar and the Nepali community really feels that the existence of these groups has really made life better for them. People are so ready to 'help their own.' They are also very ready to help researchers.

SF: What was your impression of the labour camps that you visited?

KT: Some of them were not that bad, but others were very crowded, with 15-20 bunks per room. Conditions were not that appalling for people coming from Nepal, and in my experience the labour camps were not what Nepali migrants were complaining about most. People are willing to suffer a lot when they migrate to the Gulf, provided that they get something in return. The problem is when Nepalis feel that they are putting up with a lot of everyday hardship but find that there is no real financial gain (because they are not being paid enough or wages are being withheld).

SF: So what are the things that Nepali migrant workers complained about when they described their experiences in the Gulf?

KT: Money. Nepalis feel that they are not being paid enough to pay off their overheads. The calculation for most people migrating to the Gulf is so tight. Getting a passport, then going from their town or village to Kathmandu to see a manpower agent, taking a loan at up to 60% interest to pay the manpower agency is a hugely expensive process.

To pay that back the money that they have borrowed to get to the Gulf in the first place people need to be earning enough money, and their financial calculation is also based on doing overtime. This means that Nepalis in the Gulf are working so hard that they don't have any leisure time. Nepalis aren't used to not having time in this way. They come to the Gulf and for perhaps the first time in their lives they just feel like a small part of a machine. Being fitted like a cog to the modern economic apparatus is extremely difficult for them.

SF: What was the psychological effect of this on migrant workers that you met?

KT: You can definitely see the evidence of psychological problems on migrants. If you are a migrant worker from the developing world, it's like you're there but you're not there, because the economic barrier separates them from participating in wider society. Migrant workers in the Gulf own so little compared to the cost of living over there, but it is in a place where power and money are being rubbed in their faces constantly. Imagine being a migrant worker earning $5 per day and serving rich expats coffee that costs as much as your daily wage. This sends a message to the migrant that they are worth nothing, and they begin to feel bereft.

People come here with a burden, and I felt that this was taking a clear psychological toll on them. To begin with, Nepali migrants are shouldering huge debts and responsibilities to their families. Maybe their families have got their land up as collateral against a loan. There is a really loneliness in this burden for migrant workers.

The other problem is that a lot of Nepalis are separated from their spouses, and this is a huge cause of stress. Fears are constantly preying on them: is my spouse being sensible with the money I send home? Are they being faithful to me? Bear in mind that it costs a huge amount of money for them just to make a short phone call home.

SF: Were the problems that migrant women were facing different from those of men?

KT: In a sense you can't really compare. But I personally would say that women's condition is fundamentally worse. Everybody is vulnerable, male or female, but the women migrants are worse off because they generally work as housemaids in private homes. Once you're behind those doors it's the luck of the draw what kind of human beings you will get. As hard as it is for men, their position is one of socialized production. They are working in public spaces. But women are in private spaces and are physically vulnerable in a way that the men aren't.

SF: Did the migrant workers that you met with encounter racism from the locals?

KT: The men hardly ever come into contact with the locals; in their workplaces the foreman is usually an Indian or a Nepali. However, Nepalis I spoke to said that there was a lot of abuse against them by Nepali foremen or managers. In a way it's like a whole unequal society is being replicated.

SF: Finally, what do you think could be done to improve the situation for Migrant Workers?

KT: There are a number of major problems that need to be looked at. Really, the problems of migrant workers are rooted in an exploitative global economic system. The GDP of the Gulf states is as high as most western countries but they take in labour from low income countries, and then pay disproportionately low wages. In some of the richest oil economies of the world, people are earning as little as US$5 per day.

One issue that needs to be tackled is that of crooked manpower agencies, and there are certainly enough of them to be a problem. In the destination countries, these 'suppliers' can earn 100 Riyals per day for sourcing a Nepali migrant worker, but the worker only gets maybe 30 Riyals of that.

I think that Nepali migrants need to go to the Gulf with better information. People feel that they can go, and they must go, and it is not for us to tell them not to; but they could at least be better prepared. Migrants with just two months training in say, scaffolding, could earn 25% more than completely unskilled workers. If Nepalis are earning more overseas it will be better for the individual and better for the country, since the Nepali economy is so dependent on remittances.

You can see footage from Kesang's work-in-progress, Saving Dolma, here.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East