SINDHUPALCHOWK, NEPAL ̶ Aashika Tamang arrived in Kuwait in January 2012, eager to work hard and earn money. She dreamed of building a house in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital. She was 18 years old when she began working as a cleaner in an office in Kuwait City and looked forward to her first paycheck, which she expected would be worth 15,000 rupees ($144).
Back home in rural Nepal, Tamang earned only a few thousand rupees a few times a year – profit from raising goats in Sindhupalchowk District, about 65 kilometers (40 miles) from Kathmandu. She married in 2010 and moved into the home of her husband’s family, but money was tight. Tamang’s husband left in 2011 to work in Malaysia. Tamang followed suit a few months later and left for Kuwait.
But soon after she completed her first month, her employment agent in Kuwait informed her that she would work for someone else because her current employer was not happy with her work.
Tamang, now 21, says she was shocked. She had worked hard, she says, and hadn’t had any problems with anyone in the office.
Tamang was sold, she says, for $1,500 by her Kuwaiti employer to a Saudi Arabian man. She learned of the trade when the two men, and her employment agent, exchanged documents in front of her. Tamang says she watched as her passport and visa documents were handed over by her Kuwaiti employer to the Saudi Arabian man.
She did not have the courage to stop herself from being traded, Tamang says.
“I followed the Saudi house owner silently as I did not have any option of getting out from there,” Tamang says.
She did not know anyone in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia to whom to appeal for help, and she left Kuwait without being paid for her month of work.
Many Nepalese migrant workers, like Tamang, sign up with Nepal-based employment agents to find work abroad, only to be exploited and trapped in foreign countries. Female migrant workers, who receive nearly 6 percent of work permits issued, are particularly vulnerable to physical and sexual exploitation and abuse by employers when they are trafficked.
Nepalese women were previously trafficked to India to be prostitutes, says Nisha Baniya, a lawyer who specializes in labor issues. But now, women going abroad for foreign employment, with legal work permits from the Department of Foreign Employment, are also being sold, she says.
Since Middle Eastern countries are the preferred destination for female workers, the illegal sale of women from one employer to another and their exploitation are seen most in Persian Gulf countries, Baniya says.
But the trafficking of women in the guise of migrant work is part of a large network of agents, where the agents in Nepal and the agents in the receiving country benefit, Baniya says. Fake documents are made and visas are obtained from Nepalese embassies in foreign countries to move the women from one country to another.
Earlier this year the Ministry of Labour and Employment issued a directive allowing women over 24 years old to work abroad as housemaids in Gulf countries and Malaysia. Previous laws banned women younger than 30 traveling to Middle Eastern countries as domestic workers.
That ban was a year too late for Tamang. Once in Saudi Arabia, she says, she was told she would be a housemaid. Tamang says her day started at 5 a.m. and that she worked until midnight. She did housecleaning as well as child care for her employer’s seven children.
Tamang says she worked in the house for 3½ years. She says she never received a salary. She asked to return to Nepal, she says, but her pleas were ignored.
“They used to lock me inside a house, and tell me that they bought me,” she says. “They refused to return me.”
For years, Tamang says, she hoped her situation would get better. She eventually began setting aside small amounts of money from cash she was given to buy supplies for the house.
Once she had enough, Tamang says, she bought a SIM card for her phone. In early 2015, she used that phone to contact friends via Facebook and told them about her situation. Those friends alerted the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions, which informed Nepal’s embassy in Kuwait.
On Aug. 23, Tamang says, she left the house in Saudi Arabia at 1 a.m. and met a Nepalese Embassy official who was waiting for her. That official took her to the embassy, where she stayed for one day before she returned to Nepal. Her employer did not know she was leaving.
“I have got out of that hell, and now I feel I am liberated,” Tamang says.
But Tamang returned to Nepal penniless. She had taken a loan of 25,000 rupees ($240) for her travel expenses to Kuwait, which she cannot pay back. Now, she has no income other than the money her husband sends from Malaysia.
Tamang lives with a relative in Sindhupalchowk. In September, she filed a complaint with the Nepal Police in Kathmandu against the agent who sent her to Kuwait. The complaint is still under investigation, and she has not received any further news from the police.
Working abroad has become a key employment opportunity for Nepalese.
More than half a million work permits were issued by Nepal’s Department of Foreign Employment in the 2013-14 fiscal year. A work permit is a legal document required by every Nepalese traveling to a country other than India for work. The department issued work permits to 492,724 men and 29,154 women from mid-July 2013 to mid-July 2014.
The Ministry of Labour and Employment says the annual remittance contribution of migrant workers to Nepal’s gross domestic product has been increasing since 2011. In the Labour Migration for Employment: A Status Report for Nepal 2013-2014, the ministry says that in the first eight months of 2013-14, foreign-worker remittances represented 29.1 percent of Nepal’s GDP.
The top five destination countries for Nepalese migrant workers between 2008-09 and 2013-14 were Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, according to the report.
Around 74 percent of migrant workers who received labor permits from the Department of Foreign Employment in the 2013-14 fiscal year were categorized as “unskilled,” according to a 2015 report by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH and the International Labour Organization.
The number of women applying for foreign work permits between the 2008-09 fiscal year and the 2013-14 fiscal year increased by 239 percent, according to the report by the Ministry of Labour and Employment. In the first year, 8,594 women applied for work permits, compared with 2013-14, when 29,154 women applied.
Nepal’s porous border with India has made it easy for traffickers to move Nepalese women through that country.
In August, 27 women who were being trafficked to the Middle East via Africa were rescued in India, says Narayan Prasad Kafle, joint secretary of the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare.
In the past few years, the ministry has worked with Indian and Nepalese police to rescue individual women who were being taken illegally through Indian airports; this was the largest group of women the ministry has rescued, Kafle says. All 27 women were from districts affected by Nepal’s deadly April earthquake.
Men and women migrant workers are moved without their consent from one country to another in the Middle East and exploited for their labor, says Pemba Lama, a member of the Legislative Parliament of Nepal and of the International Relations and Labour Committee.
“But there is a higher risk for women in comparison to the men, as they are abused and exploited by their owners,” Lama says.
Baniya agrees. She also says men who are trafficked are ashamed to talk about it.
“Being a male, they don’t want to tell the people that they were sold after they migrated,” she says. “So this issue came out as only a woman’s issue in Nepal.”
Asgher Ali, chairman of Saksham Human Resources Pvt. Ltd., a foreign employment agency in Kathmandu, says the company sends around 100 to 150 workers abroad every year, of whom about 20 to 25 are women.
Women are exploited when they don’t have the skills they need to do the jobs for which they were hired, Ali says.
“Those who do not have required skill do not get salary as per the agreement, and they run away from there to take up another job, which is illegal in the Gulf countries,” Ali says. “This is where the house owner finds an opportunity to blackmail for physical and sexual exploitation.”
The workers need to be trained in how to work in foreign environments and use foreign equipment, and learn foreign culture, he says.
Benu Maya Gurung, program coordinator of the Alliance Against Trafficking in Women and Children in Nepal, a network of organizations working to end trafficking, says government bans and frequent changes in the minimum age of female workers have led to confusion. That has been exploited by agents who convince women that it is cheaper and safer to travel overseas from India than from Nepal. The open border between India and Nepal provides ease of travel.
The Alliance partners work with rescued women, and Gurung says the incidents of forced prostitution, physical exploitation and women being sold from one employer to another are common.
“They have been suffering silently due to the threats of being handed over to the police for embracing the illegal route to reach the destination country,” she says.
But even women who obtain permits and follow the legal route are at risk of being trafficked.
Sita Sapkota was 20 years old when she went to Israel in 2010 to work as a housemaid, says her mother, Parbati Sapkota. Her mother had no news of Sita until a phone call in 2012, when her daughter said she was working in Kuwait and going through a difficult time.
“She pleaded with me to take her out from there,” Sapkota, 45, says. “I am confident that my daughter was sold there.”
Sapkota has not heard from her daughter since, she says.
“I do not have any clue where and what she is doing now,” Sapkota says. “Where do I go to search for her?”
Sapkota believes that her son-in-law and the agent, working with a manpower agency, tricked her daughter into going to Israel, knowing she would be taken from there to another country.
Sapkota grieves for her daughter, she says. She has nowhere to begin a search for her lost daughter.
“I do not have any documents or photocopy of her passport,” Sapkota says. “I do not have anything of her except a photo and memory.”
The Foreign Employment Promotion Board asks prospective migrant workers to follow a two-day orientation to prepare for their work and life in a foreign country, says Janak Raj Regmi, spokesman for the Department of Foreign Employment. More than 100 firms in Kathmandu are licensed to provide the training, which teaches about the culture and working environment in the destination country.
“But many Nepalese go abroad without any information and eventually end up being sold even without their knowledge,” he says. “Taking orientation training from these firms before heading off for the foreign employment can help stop women being trafficked.”
The Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare operates eight rehabilitation centers in eight districts bordering India and China for those rescued from trafficking, says Kafle, the joint secretary for the Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare.
The government allocates 10 million rupees ($95,557) each year to the ministry to use in anti-trafficking programs and for the operation of the rehabilitation centers, Kafle says.
The National Committee for Controlling Human Trafficking, with members from the government and nongovernmental sectors, is reviewing the existing laws and guidelines to make them more effective, Kafle says.
But there is no turning back the clock for women such as Tamang. She is pursuing her case against the manpower agent who she believes tricked her.
But winning her case will bring her little joy, she says.
“I have been left in the lurch now,” she says. “I do not have any money.”
Sagar Ghimire, GPJ, translated this article from Nepali.