Nepalese dying to work
KATHMANDU (CNN) – Twenty-one-year-old Ramila Syangden weeps uncontrollably as she clutches her 10-month-old baby. She sits and watches as the pyre where her husband’s body will be cremated is set alight in the open Nepalese air.
Syangden never considered one of the potential consequences of her husband’s decision to work abroad. Now she can’t ignore it.
Hours before the Buddhist cremation ceremony she watched the coffin, with her husband’s body inside, arrive on a flight from Saudi Arabia where he had worked.
The paperwork says the 36-year old committed suicide there. Not a single person gathered for the cremation ceremony believes it.
“I don’t think so. He said he would go abroad, see the place, earn as much as he could for the children and come back. I think somebody killed him,“ his wife said.
She may never know exactly what happened to him. But the family says he had every reason to live. He was a retired police officer collecting a pension. He was healthy and he’d been working in Saudi Arabia for less than a month without any complaints.
“When my son went I thought that he would earn money for the family but his dead body came back instead,” his father, Sonam Singh Bomjang, said.
He can’t believe his son died this way, especially considering he survived being shot by Maoists while serving as a Nepali police officer.
The family’s story is not at all unusual. Nepal is one of the poorest countries on earth. With little work available, an estimated 1,300 Nepalese citizens go abroad for work every single day. But every day some return in coffins.
“On an average per day, two to three coffins are coming back to Nepal mostly from the Gulf countries,” said sociologist Ganesh Gurung, a member of Nepal’s government task force for foreign labor reform.
The official reason for the deaths vary, but once the bodies make it to Nepal the cause of death is rarely if ever investigated further.
Gurung says Nepalese workers attracted by good money abroad often face awful problems. The most common complaint: workers do not get what they were promised. But the complaints can be far worse, particularly for women who work as maids in homes.
“They have experienced physical exploitation, sexual exploitation, and we have received many girls coming back with children from their employers,” Gurung said.
We met one such maid. Not even her own family knows the pain she has suffered. Kumari is seven months pregnant and said the baby inside her is a product of rape. The father, she says, is her former employer in Kuwait.
For a year-and-a-half Kumari said she was paid the equivalent of $144 a month but then the pay stopped and the beatings started.
“My landlord would beat me, they (he and his wife) both would beat me. My body would ache. I bore that beating for a long time but stayed,” she said in tears.
Then one day, she said, the beating came with something else; rape.
She said the landlord came home when the rest of the family was out, and called her into the bathroom while she was folding clothes in another room. When she refused he came to her.
“He beat me up. First he covered my mouth so I could not scream. After he did that (raped me) I asked for my passport. He wouldn’t give it to me,” she said her voice breaking.
So she fled to the Nepalese Embassy in Kuwait with no passport. She says she spent weeks in Nepalese custody and found herself with dozens of other Nepali women.
Some were pregnant like her, others had babies, and still others were one their own – but they all wanted to escape employment there.
The 35-year-old divorced mother of two now lives in a shelter in Nepal with other maids recovering from abuse abroad. When we asked what she planned to do with the baby on the way she said: “I wanted to get rid of this baby, (abort it), but they told me that was not possible because my life would be endangered.”
She was several months pregnant when she finally made it back to Nepal. “Now the baby is going to be born. I am not going to keep it,” she said.
For more than 10 years, Nepal banned women from traveling to Gulf countries for work after the suicide of a Nepalese maid who complained of abuse in Kuwait.
But the need to survive surpassed fear and women did it illegally. The government lifted the ban in 2010.
Now the lines for foreign work visas are as long as ever, even as the stories of despair keep coming home.
Human labor is Nepal’s largest export. The workers usually sign two or three-year contracts to work for employers abroad. The money Nepalese workers send back to their families from outside the country accounts for nearly 25% of Nepal’s gross domestic product.
It is big business in Nepal, officially second only to agriculture. And some labor experts argue remittances from abroad are actually the biggest contributor to the country’s economy because it is nearly impossible to tally all the cash that makes its way back into the country.
At a training facility in the capital, Masino Tamang is going abroad for the second time to find work even after he says he endured backbreaking work the first time.
He was promised a job as a driver, but when he arrived in Malaysia the job was making and lifting heavy furniture.
Still Tamang plans to try again. This time he is getting training and going through a professional agency.
“I am not going because I want to. People have money problems. If I stay home I will not be able to earn anything,” he said.
Some do make a relatively decent living but all say they work very hard. The government has now mandated any citizen going to work abroad must attend an orientation course.
Private companies such as SOS Manpower offer skills training and safety training to villagers who will be working on buildings on a scale they have never seen before. Many of the workers come from mountain villages where the only skyscraper is the Himalayan mountains.
But nothing can prepare these men for the searing desert heat in the countries where they will work. The heat has often been suspected in worker deaths.
For those using illegal means to get work abroad, the living conditions can be so horrid and unsanitary it makes workers sick.
Nepal’s Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai told CNN he is well aware of the many problems Nepal’s workers are facing abroad. He told us the government has been making changes to try to protect its workers.
“We have instructed our missions in those countries to take the issue seriously, but the main problem still is as long as we can’t provide jobs within our own country they are forced to migrate. They use illegal channels and when they go there illegally then they don’t have legal protection,” he said.
Bhattarai has a plan to bring more jobs to his country but concedes it could take years to see the fruits of that plan.
Far too late for the men and women who returned emotionally scarred, or even in a box, for simply trying to create a better life for themselves.