DOHA, QATAR — They were without money, without jobs and unable to go home.
Twenty Nepalese men who had come to Qatar for work were suddenly stranded in the desert, unable to speak Arabic and even denied access to their passports.
Jiban Prasad Khatiwada was one of them. In March, he and his co-workers discovered that their company, Shaji Al Makhalas General Cleaning Company, had been sold.
His manager left for vacation, but then two weeks later a new man came to their labor camp and told them he was their new boss. He offered them a fraction of their previous monthly salary — 700 riyals ($192) for 10-hour days, instead of 900 riyals ($247) for working eight-hour days, Khatiwada says. There would be no overtime pay or food allowances. Plus, the men were owed three months of back pay, and there was no sign that they would ever receive it.
The men refused, but the company still had their passports. And without jobs, their legal status in Qatar was jeopardized.
INSIDE THE STORY: Much has been written about migrant workers who face abusive circumstances in Qatar and other countries, but most of those stories focus on conditions in those host countries. In our series, two Global Press reporters examine how Nepalese companies take advantage of other Nepalese people by knowingly sending them into unfair work situations. For two Nepalese reporters, the project was a painful look at how their countrymen are exploited. Read the blog.
“Our situation was so bad,” says Khatiwada, who was first interviewed near the labor camp where he lived in the Al Khor area north of Doha, Qatar’s capital city. “We had nothing. We did not have money to buy food. We do not even have money to give a missed call back home.”
When they took their case to a court in Qatar in an attempt to demand that the company return their passports, which had been surrendered when they arrived in-country, they were told that the company, which was listed on the men’s visa documents, didn’t legally exist. And since it didn’t exist, the men couldn’t pursue legal action against it.
“We were shocked,” Khatiwada says. “We were lost.”
Their dilemma is a common one for the estimated 1.9 million Nepalese workers who live abroad. Qatari laws, which include the rigid kafala system in which employees are bound to their employers, and Qatari companies have been widely criticized for exploiting foreign workers. But that exploitation starts close to home, when the men sign on with employment agencies (known locally as manpower agencies) that peddle them into inhumane situations, for a profit.
The workers’ recourse is limited: Of the men who make it back to Nepal, few have the wherewithal to file the necessary paperwork and then remain in Kathmandu, the capital city, to see the case through.
Many illegal manpower agencies have been shut down by the Nepalese government in recent years, but even the legal ones are known to engage in practices that take advantage of workers. Since late 2008, nearly 10,000 formal complaints have been filed in Nepal against manpower agencies operating legally there. Advocates of migrant workers say that number represents a small fraction of the complaints that could be made, if workers could more easily make them.
“The process is too long and workers don’t have money,” says Krishna Prasad Neupane, coordinator of the People Forum for Human Rights, which provides free legal aid to migrant workers.
Other workers who might file complaints are in Qatar, like Khatiwada and the other men in his group, bound by the kafala system that systematically bars them from leaving the country when they choose.
Global Press Journal traveled to Qatar to find men who, after contracting with Nepalese manpower agencies, were stuck there, unable to return home even when they wanted to. Speaking in Nepali, the men told their stories to GPJ’s Nepalese reporters in restaurants near Qatar’s infamous labor camps and in taxis that circled them.
Khatiwada had been in Qatar since October 2015, when he began working with the 19 other men for the cleaning company. He and eleven others were all sent to Qatar by the same manpower agency: Reliance Recruitment Services, registered in Nepal.
The other eight Nepalese workers had come through Royal Himchuli International, another manpower agency registered in Nepal.
Shilu Manandhar, GPJ Nepal
Labor migration is key to modern Nepalese culture. Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport is, on most days, crowded with men awaiting flights to foreign countries, where they expect they’ll work hard but earn a living that could transform life for their often poor, rural families. Remittances make up nearly 30 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, according to the World Bank.
Manpower agencies wield huge power over the workers. In Nepal, they’re required under the 2007 Foreign Employment Act to get a license with the government before sending anyone abroad, and they handle pre-departure paperwork and other legal requirements for the workers, for a fee.
But fraud, misrepresentation of work abroad, overcharging of fees and other violations are routine, according to sources including a 2014 report by the Nepal-based Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility, Open Society Foundations and other organizations. In some cases, abuses amount to forced labor and debt bondage.
The first sign of trouble came early, Khatiwada says. The men asked their manager at the cleaning company in Qatar for their ID cards, which are required to prove their legal status.
“More than six months passed but we were still not provided with ID cards,” he says.
When the men refused to work for the company’s new boss, they each lost their 200 riyal ($55) food stipend and were told they had to leave the labor camp where they lived, located about 60 kilometers (37 miles) north of Doha. They also lost access to the camp’s transportation services. Scared and confused, they relied on friends in the camp to share their meals.
On March 26, the men walked for seven hours, from the labor camp to the city, hoping to file a formal complaint with the Qatari government that would help them access their passports and get plane tickets to return home. Instead, they were placed in a holding cell at a deportation center because, without company-issued identity cards, they were considered to be in the country illegally.
After five days in a holding cell, Khatiwada says, Reliance Recruitment Services, which was contacted via the Nepalese embassy in Qatar, sent plane tickets for its 12 workers to return to Nepal. They fled Qatar, giving up hope that they would ever receive their back pay.
But the men who worked for Royal Himchuli International didn’t even get plane tickets. Laxman Thapa Magar, one of the eight men who signed on through that manpower agency, says he and the others borrowed money from friends to pay for their flights home.
Relieved to be back in Nepal, the men scattered to their homes across the country. As of June, none of them had received any compensation for their troubles in Qatar.
Often, the people who leave Nepal to work abroad are illiterate or have very little education. In Khatiwada’s group, some of the men couldn’t read or write. When wronged, the idea of navigating the bureaucratic complaint process is overwhelming, so many manpower agencies get away with fraud and exploitation.
Corruption and improper payments, including recruitment fees and other up-front costs paid by migrant workers before they leave Nepal, amount to an estimated $480 to $1,100 per migrant worker in the Nepal-Qatar corridor alone, according to a January report by Verité, a Massachusetts-based fair labor advocacy group, and The Freedom Fund, an anti-slavery group. That same report found that $300 to $500 per worker is paid in kickbacks by Nepalese manpower agencies to Qatari recruitment agencies or Qatari employers. Additional fees paid to both Qatari and Nepali government officials, related to work visas and other documents, provide more potential for corruption, the report notes.
The Nepalese government has in recent years shuttered manpower agencies that operated illegally there, but the problems are endemic among legal agencies, too.
There were 755 licensed manpower agencies in Nepal as of June, according to Department of Foreign Employment records.
Since it was formed in December 2008, the department had received 9,775 complaints against licensed manpower agencies. At least three manpower agencies had 100 or more complaints filed against them.
Six of those complaints are against Royal Himchuli International, the agency that signed on Magar and seven others who worked for the cleaning company in Qatar, as of May. One complaint was filed against Reliance Recruitment Services, the agency that signed on Khatiwada and the 11 others. But none of the complaints against the two companies were filed by the 20 men who were stranded in Qatar. In fact, those men told GPJ that they don’t intend to file complaints at all.
Complaints can only be filed with the Department of Foreign Employment in Kathmandu, Neupane says. For men from rural areas, Kathmandu is a prohibitively expensive city, especially when they’re faced with the prospect of staying there at length while a complaint is processed.
Even so, complaints keep coming in from workers who are desperate for justice. In the six-month period from July 2015 to December 2015, the forum received requests for assistance with the cases of 354 migrant workers.
Many of the complaints, which Neupane examined and described to GPJ, note similar experiences. Some workers say they were forced into jobs different than those they signed contracts for and, in some cases, no work was available at all. Workers report having been abandoned by their companies and others say their passports were never returned to them.
Most workers who complain wind up in a mediation hearing during which the worker, representatives of the manpower agency and the foreign employment department’s director general are present.
On average, there are three or four mediation hearings in a day and more than 100 hearings in a month, says Mohan Adhikari, director of the Department of Foreign Employment.
Neupane says those hearings don’t push manpower companies to be fair to their workers.
“This is wrong,” Neupane says. “There shouldn’t be any negotiations. The client should get maximum compensation and the agency should be fined.”
But Adhikari says workers who leave Nepal without understanding their contractual obligations are partially to blame.
“The laborers who go from Nepal have very little information,” he says. “They are illiterate and unskilled. Their dream is to go abroad, work, earn and send money home. They are not aware about their agreement.”
Nepal’s Foreign Employment Act and its related regulations allow for high penalties against companies, including up to seven years’ jail time and fines of up to 700,000 rupees ($6,533), in addition to paying compensation for the worker.
No company has been challenged in court under that law, but things seem to be changing. As of mid-June, the Department of Foreign Employment was preparing 47 cases to send before a judge.
Most Nepalese migrant workers aren’t aware of the problems with manpower agencies until they’re abroad and a problem occurs. Then, they’re stuck, without the lifeline they assumed they would have.
Deepak Gharti Magar, the marketing director for Royal Himchuli International, told GPJ that in March his company gave money to three of the eight workers it sent to the cleaning company in Qatar, but that none of the other men asked for anything. At the same time, he acknowledged that he didn’t know whether those men were in Qatar or back home in Nepal.
Yam Kumari Kandel, GPJ Nepal
Laxman Thapa Magar says the company never gave him anything. He hoped for a reimbursement for the money he borrowed to pay for his flight home, but says he couldn’t afford to stay in Kathmandu long enough to pursue one.
Deepak Gharti Magar told GPJ that his company has no record of ever having signed a contract with Laxman Thapa Magar, despite the workers’ paperwork that proves otherwise.
Sarita Ghale, the manager of Reliance Recruitment Services, says manpower agencies are just as much in need of protection as workers are.
“There are laws protecting migrant workers, but who will protect us?” asks Ghale. “We also need protection. Even we are cheated by companies from abroad.”
Ghale insists that Reliance Recruitment was cheated by the cleaning company.
“Not all manpower companies are bad,” she says. “When a company sends 1,000 workers to good places, no one says anything. But if 10 workers land up in a bad place then manpower companies are badly criticized.”
She says she had no idea there was a problem for Khatiwada and the others until the Nepalese embassy in Qatar contacted her about their plight.
Once the workers returned to Kathmandu, Reliance Recruitment gave them each 10,000 rupees ($93) so they could return to their homes. Ghale says she kept the passports of the workers who said they might want to go abroad to work again.
Reliance Recruitment doesn’t plan to offer the workers any additional assistance.
“They are back home safe and that’s all that matters,” Ghale says.
EDITOR’S NOTE: None of the sources in this story are related.
Shilu Manandhar, GPJ, translated all interviews from Nepali.
This Special Report was produced with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting as part of the Persephone Miel Fellowship program.