In the villages, there is a saviour and he is simply called ‘agent’. He takes on the garb of the bogeyman in global migration narratives. The corrupt recruitment agent preying on gullible citizens and packing them off to hostile shores.
The truth lies between the two guises. There has been little or no effort in streamlining recruitment agents in Nepal. Word on the streets is that the owners of the agencies are politically well-connected.
Countries of destination too often shirk their responsibility in curtailing trafficking. As far as they are concerned it’s a problem of and limited to sending countries.
Ka-ching! Economics trumps humanity
The reason recruitment agents have a free run is because about a fourth of Nepal’s $19.4 billion GDP is through remittances. According to the World Bank, in 2013, Nepal received $5,551,527,542 in personal remittances. This is not accounting for money transfer through illegal channels.
Little wonder the country is reluctant to rock the boat and jeopardise manpower export. There is little monitoring of agents and training centres, and migration is so widespread there are no mechanisms in place to reach out to remote parts of Nepal.
Laxman Basnet, General Secretary of South Asian Regional Trade Union Council, at a recent ILO event said 55% of households in Nepal were dependent on a migrant family member and their remittances.
This naturally takes the pressure off the government to provide for the citizens.
Yet, there’s an opportunity to arrive at the same results by making the process cleaner and more ethical, without preventing citizens from migration.
Somprasad Lamichane, a returning migrant, is a strong proponent of migration.
He is one of the founders of Pravasi Nepal Co-ordination Committee, which was conceived by five Nepali migrant workers in Saudi who saw a need for better education on safe migration. Between them, their wealth of lived experiences in both exploitation and success brings an insight absent from most other organisations run by 'experts.'
“The pre-departure training is not properly executed. Often they don’t even get training, just a certificate. Teachers have no experience. They just talk. It’s about how to go to airport, using toilet inside the aircraft etc. Also environment of destination countries. But it’s not categorised. Malaysia or Qatar or Saudi they all receive same training. In fact, they should receive orientation even before they get a passport. Not in the last moment before they leave the country. As it stands, during the orientation they are told not to pay agent without a receipt. This is futile. They arrive at training only after having gone through those processes.”
Every day 4,000 applications for passports are submitted. It is at this point that orientation should take place, says Somprasad.
Jitendra Jonchhe of Gefont (General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions) has proof of how inefficient training centres are. He is on the recently set-up monitoring committee that tours districts to inspect training centres. There are 122 such centres in Nepal.
“Look at this photo. In this centre there were two potential migrants sitting in the room facing an overhead a screen with some notes on it. That’s the training they will receive. Not even a trainer in the room.
“The requirement is for 11 hours of training on procedures and processes in receiving countries. This is a joke.”
Gefont works with potential migrants and tries to educate them on safe migration. In their team are people like Dhal Bahadur who are returning migrants with far more knowledge than the trainers at the centre.
But this is not always easy. Gefont is a trade union. According to Gopal Ghimre the potential migrants don’t want to listen to trade unions. “They are brainwashed by recruitment agents. They’ve been warned not to interact with unions, as they would lose their opportunities.”
Somprasad says in the decade since his own migration journey, very little has changed. “There is no awareness. I was not aware eight years ago. They are not aware even now. Most potential migrants don’t know what a contract is, leave alone substitution or fake contract. They believe everything the agent says. About 60% are illiterate and they don’t know what’s written. Once they reach destination countries, they are surprised. Their expectations are so high.”
The business of recruitment
Uddav Shrestha is the director of Energy Overseas Manpower Company, which according to him is a small scale agency and should not be targeted.
He is nostalgic for an era – a decade ago – when there were fewer manpower agents and enough profits to ensure there wasn’t so much corruption.
“A decade ago employers used to come and recruit directly. Now they prefer doing it through their local agency. We could also contact companies through yellow pages contact and ask them for requirements. Then employer would come here directly the first time, and be involved in the process. Once they trust us, we take care of interviews and placements.
“At the beginning there were just 10-20 agents. Now there are almost 1000 registered agents. Earlier worker would pay a meagre fee, employer would bear costs and by mobilising just a thousand workers a year the company could make profits, making US$300-400 per person. We were happy.”
Uddav says when companies in destination realised this was good money making business “they started local manpower agencies there. They take (fee) from employer and from us.”
In his analysis the problem of fees lies with manpower agencies in countries of destination, and problem of exploitation with employers.
“Employer manipulates the job demand data. They might have more than one company and shift workers around. So both job and salary will be different from what give here in the contract. Sometimes workers are homesick or ill and we can manage that. Not the first.”
Costs of migration is dependent on receiving countries.
“Qatar is an exception. They are strict so agents don’t charge much commission. The worker is not supposed to pay for visa or ticket.”
He doesn't see a problem if workers have to. “In the UAE for instance, they encourage workers to pay a portion of the migration costs. Say 40% of the visa fee and your joining ticket. Their logic is if you contribute to costs then you have invested in the company and will be loyal and will not run away. This is the company securing its interests. On completion of contract they would provide return ticket.”
He refuses to be nailed down on overcharging workers. “It would be very fortunate if employer pays for everything. The NPR70000 workers pay us, which is legal, it covers all expenses including passport, tickets etc. Within that our margin is also there. Most manpower companies are satisfied with 100-150 dollars per person. We have to make money, no? Manpower agencies in the Gulf don’t pay anything.”
“Some workers accuse agents of overcharging more than the stipulated 80,000, over 100,000 even?”
“This is off track question (sic)… when they pay that much I assure you it’s not manpower agency eating the 150k. We are satisfied with much less. That much is charged it’s to make sure it’s good companies. It’s related to demand and supply…”