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Desperation and danger in the Gulf for South Asia’s migrant workers

Nepali men line up to receive receive official documents allowing them to go overseas to work. Photo: Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images

Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers hoping to escape poverty and provide for their families depart South Asia every year for the Gulf region.

The reality: Promises tend to evaporate when they arrive in the Middle East. Many find themselves working in exploitative and dangerous conditions — and unable to return home.

Hemraj Damai, 33, is a typical case. He moved to Qatar in 2018 after paying a recruitment agent around $900 — 10 times the fee stipulated by the Nepali government. A low caste Dalit from the plains of southern Nepal, he was promised a cleaning job in Doha with a monthly wage of $324.

  • This was Damai's second trip to the Gulf. He had previously spent two years working on a sheep farm in Kuwait.
  • When he arrived, he was asked to drill tunnels and paint buildings in extreme heat for just half the promised salary.
  • He was allowed to change jobs when he complained, but for even lower hourly pay. He worked 16-18 hours every day to send $200 per month to his family.
  • "I could only sleep three to four hours every night,” Damai told Axios from his village in Nepal. "Sometimes the room we lived in had leakages from the toilet. Once I earned back the money that I had paid to the broker, I decided to return home."

The big picture: Remittances are a lifeline for low and middle income countries like Nepal. Of the $689 billion disbursed worldwide in 2018, $529 billion went to developing countries, according to the World Bank.

  • 4.36 million Nepalis are working abroad, of which 75% are unskilled laborers. Remittances from workers like Hemraj make up nearly 30% of Nepal’s GDP.

Angela Sherwood, who researches labor rights for Nepali migrant workers for Amnesty International, tells Axios that exploitation often starts at the very beginning of the journey.

  • Workers often lack knowledge of the process and are illegally forced to make payments and turn over their passports. Government departments in Nepal tasked with protecting workers rights are severely under-resourced.
  • In destination countries, wages often don't match what was promised. With debts hanging over them, workers feel they can’t leave even the most dangerous and exploitative jobs.
  • Amnesty International exposed an engineering company linked to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar that failed to provide workers with salary, residence permits and access to medical facilities.

More than 7,000 Nepali workers died overseas in the last 10 years, according to the Nepali government.

  • The numbers from India are even higher: 28,523 died in Gulf countries between 2014 to 2018, according to India’s government.
  • The deaths typically aren’t thoroughly investigated, but many could be tied to harsh working conditions, according to May Romanos, who has researched conditions in Qatar for Amnesty International.

The bottom line: Nearly every day, coffins of dead workers arrive at Nepal’s international airport in Kathmandu. At a crowded departure gate designated specifically for them, workers line up, hoping for a brighter future.

  • Despite his recent experience, Hemraj will soon be among them. He’s planning to depart for Malaysia soon.
“I have no land and no job here. I need money to afford education for my sons. I have no option other than foreign employment to make my family happy."