We traverse narrow culverts in steep slopes to reach homes in deeper reaches of the hills. Sounds of running water and the smell of clean mountain air. Plump faced children in tattered clothes play under a large tree that serves as a village square.
We stop at Maneprasad’s home. He returned to Yampaphant seven months ago, after a six-year stint in Saudi Arabia.
“I worked in a cafeteria in Abha. They promised me food and accommodation but didn’t give me anything. Just my salary.”
Maneprasad went to Saudi via India, a route taken by many to bypass the training and orientation required in formal migration. He is stoic about his Gulf experience. He makes a sweeping a gesture, to show what he built in the six years. A modest little home.
“What do you do now? Do you run a business?”
“Do you share your experience with others?”
“I don’t tell people anything. Don’t ask them to go or not to go.”
The many shades of returnees
His reluctance to share his experiences is not unique either. Most returnees prefer to maintain an image of success and well-being, similar to what they aspired to pre-departure.
Ravindra Prasad is more vocal. He spent two years in Qatar and returned in 2011.
He shows his poultry shed. The radio blares 24x7. The music keeps the hens calm and from running wild. They move enough, but not too much. Innovative free range poultry. He is proud of what he has here.
“I worked as a waiter in a bakery. The salary was too low, just 700 riyals (NPR19,000, US$190). They gave accommodation but no food. I worked 11 hours daily, though contract said 8 hours. Instead of 3 hours overtime we got only for 1 hour.”
He says loud enough for the young aspirant by my side to hear.
“If I had worked this hard here, I would have made more money. This is what I tell people here in the village.
“I spent NPR100,000 (US$1000) to go there. Took a loan, and spent 8 months paying it back, after which I saved for my business.”
Ravindra doesn’t mince words. “People don’t want to work so hard here. I chose not to make my house, instead invested in business. It’s a decision my wife and I took. My children ask me sometimes if I will go back to the Gulf, because they see others in the community. I will never go back.
“A lot of people just waste their time waiting for a ‘foreign’ opportunity.”
And that’s evident. Many returnees Migrant-Rights.org met have been back for several months and wait for the next opportunity. Not all see potential for sustenance working locally.
Somprasad, our host and a returning migrant, says: “People don’t have long term business plan. If there’s a failure they abandon.
“Then they go abroad for regular income. There is no support mechanism from the govt to support businesses. So remigration happens all the time.”
Ganga Prasad is amongst those seeking remigration.
His business ventures have not worked out as hoped, and he has no choice but to seek foreign employment yet again. He is a small, strong man with sinewy arms. He flips a heavy bench one-handed, and offers me a seat before setting out to share his story.
He ran away to India as a child and worked there for 15 years. As an adult, he worked in Qatar for seven years, five of which were at QAFCO (Qatar Fertiliser Company). He brings out all his documents and identity cards, carefully filed, including a recommendation letter.
“I worked for Professional Security Services. It’s a supply company. So they didn’t pay much. I paid NPR80,000 (US$800) five years ago to get this job.”
His initial salary was Qatari riyal 800 and it increased to QR1000 towards the end of the contract period. “But how can you save. Food is expensive, and you feel like eating good things. So not much chance to save a lot. Nepal is expensive, this is not enough to send home and family to survive and to save. But I continued making a little more with over time.”
People doing similar work, directly employed by Qatar Petroleum earned a lot more, he says.
“They would earn NPR200,000 or even 300,000 (US$2000-3000). But as supplier our pay and working conditions were bad. Too much pollution… fire, death.”
Ganga worked 18 to 20 hours on an average, and some shifts would be for 36-48 hours straight. “If your shift replacement didn’t turn up you had to continue working. I couldn’t leave my post. My salary would be cut.”
Ganga took his employer to ‘labour court’ (the labour department) when they kept breaking their promise to send him on a long overdue vacation back home.
“They ruled in my favour. And company finally sent me. But they paid me very little. As per contract, I am supposed to earn 800-900 riyals basic, but even after overtime I would get only that much.”
The dead and the surviving
It wasn’t because of pay alone that he was desperate to leave Qatar.
“I wasn’t feeling good. And then my best friend there, 26 years old, came back from a long day’s duty and went to bed and never woke up. After that I wanted to leave. I couldn’t stay there after that.”
He reflects on why someone that young died. “Long work hours. It’s very hot. And we lived in a small room. Eight to 12 of us. You can never sleep well… one keeps waking up, one snores, one talks in his sleep. So you are sleepless most of the time. Maybe because of all this?”
Somprasad chips in. “See their lives here. There is hardly any motorised vehicles. There’s no pollution. Their standards of hygiene is different too. Food and water is easily available here. And then they go there, and everything is different. They don’t know how to cross the road or use the washrooms. They don’t have proper food or water. Survival is difficult.”
A few days later, back in Kathmandu I meet Meena Kunwar and Bhavara Aiyari. Meena is in her 30s but looks much older; Bhavara is 18, but looks a child. The most valuable documents in their life is in the worn-out backpacks they each carry. The death certificates of their respective husbands.
They have travelled a day and a half from the Salyan district of Nepal to claim compensation.
Dilli Bahadur Kunwar died in Qatar a couple of years ago. He received no compensation from his employer, as he ‘died in his sleep’. He left behind his wife, son and four daughters. Nepal Foreign Employment Promotion Board will pay them a compensation of NPR900,000 ($9000).
“I spoke to him on the morning of the fifth day of Dusshera (an important Hindu festival). We tried calling him again that night but couldn't reach him. His health was ok. He had been there only for seven months. And had sent back only NPR24000 in total. We paid NPR95000 as fees to the agent. So, with this compensation I have to pay all debts.”
Next step for the family? Her 18-year-old son is seeking foreign employment. The cycle continues.
Bhavara’s husband, Nar Bahadur Aiyari went to Saudi Arabia and within three months was sent back due to poor health. Within a couple of weeks of return, he died. He was just 21.
“He was healthy when he went, the medical was clear. But on going there developed all kinds of issues,” says his widow, who had been married for just six months.
Purna Bahardur Budha attempts to explain these deaths. A returning migrant himself, he is a social worker of sorts, helping families of migrants in his village.
“They work in the heat. Then they come home to air conditioned atmosphere. When it becomes too cold. This has a toll on their health. Also there’s not enough sleep. Then they die.”
No one else seems to have a better explanation. Not even the doctors in Qatar who attribute these strange deaths of able-bodied young men to cardiac arrest. There’s no arguing against the fact that lack of sleep, and poor living and working conditions contribute to debilitating health.
Purna Bahadur is unable to work abroad again because of his health condition.
“In 2008 I went through a manpower agency to Qatar. I paid NPR95000. I worked for Hyundai directly. They paid on time. I worked for 19 months. But, I was promised 600 riyals, but was paid only 472 riyals. If I did the 24-hour shift five days a month, and 14 hours on regular days, then I would manage to get 1300 riyals with overtime. But it was difficult. Sleeping only for 4-5 hours.”
Nirmala Thapa is the Director of the Secretariat of Foreign Employment Information Board. She tells Migrant-Rights.org that 2-3 bodies are being brought in daily. “We provide compensation and other support, but we can’t do much in destination countries. They don’t help.”
A point that was raised during the Qatar Labor Minister’s recent visit to Nepal.
At least 70 percent of Nepali migrant workers who died in Qatar are deprived of compensation. In the past four years alone, 684 Nepali workers died in Qatar, according to the Foreign Employment Promotion Board. The Board had issued reimbursement to families of 205 deceased workers in 2013/14, 110 in 2012/13, 130 in 2011/12, 125 in 2010-11 and 114 in 2009-10, though the exact number of death is said to be higher.
Nirmala is quick to point out: “We need to see opportunities too. Not just problems.”
Most players do see the opportunities, but returning migrants have more clarity on the challenges.
Dhal Singh Magar is also a returnee and works as a social worker and counsellor through Gefont. “I was in Qatar for five years with the Seashore manpower supply company. I worked two years in construction, one year in cargo ship, two years in a regular company.”
He now counsels potential migrants, preparing them for what they should expect there.
How receptive are the potential migrants? Do they listen?
“Not all of them. But many do. It’s too hot. No proper water, and they end up drinking sugary fizzy drinks that make it worse. That really affects their health as they are not used to it. The worst part of Qatar is the accommodation. hundreds sharing just 1 or 2 bathrooms.
“We give better information than the orientation centre, including laws of destination countries, about contract substitution etc. We also share details of existing contacts in the places they are going to.”
Which brings us to the most reviled and unregulated part of the migration cycle. Recruitment and orientation.