The Gulf Air plane from Bahrain to Qatar is exclusively filled with Nepali workers travelling from Kathmandu. Clad in cheap but new clothes, each wearing a manpower agency cap, what is immediately striking is how young they all are. Some are going for the first time; some are heading back after a few weeks’ holiday in Nepal. Still others have had disastrous experiences in Malaysia, and have now found a job in khadi, or the Gulf. Around all, there is an air of tension.
When the plane lands at Doha airport, the anxiety level increases palpably. The migrants do not chat or smile, but quietly follow one another off the plane and through the airport’s hallways. “Sangai basne,” or Let’s stick together, can regularly be heard from these new arrivals. They have all heard the stories, after all. This is the point when trouble began for Ram B, for instance. When he reached Doha a few months back, after having paid NPR 60,000 (USD 940) to a manpower agency in Kathmandu, the Qatari police suddenly told him that both his visa and work contract were fakes. For nine days he was stuck on the airport premises, drinking water from the taps in public toilets, and eating food provided by the airport’s Nepali staff. In the end, his embassy sheltered him, and he is now waiting for his family to send him enough money to buy a return ticket to Nepal. By now, of course, the loan that he had to take out to come to Qatar in the first place has doubled, and the only way of paying it back will be to go abroad again.
Although stories of Ram-type predicaments abound, in general this process is much more straightforward. After going through immigration, Nepali migrants in Qatar are picked up by their employer and taken straight to ‘labour camps’, where they will live in tiny spaces along with thousands of other economic migrants. In these camps, far from home, a new life begins. From July 2007 to January 2008, at least 110,000 workers left Nepal for work purposes, with Qatar among the main destinations. This figure represents a 25 percent increase over just the previous year. An average 240 Nepalis arrived at Doha Airport every day. Nepali men in Qatar numbered 170,000 in October 2006, and by February 2008 there were 266,000 men. Nepalis were just about to become the country’s largest expatriate community; and this trend is not about to stop. This year, an estimated 100,000 more workers are required to power the Qatari economy.
When asked why they have gone abroad, Nepali labourers in Qatar give a spectrum of answers. First and foremost, mere compulsion drives many out of Nepal. “I have no choice but to come in order to feed my family,” says Hari M. But working abroad is not only a way of filling empty stomachs in the family. Many have sufficient land by which to feed their family, after all, but no way of earning cash. Making decent earnings in Nepal is difficult without good qualifications or connections, particularly if one’s ‘own people’ (aphno manche) cannot help. Beyond economic reasons, a common feature of workers coming to Qatar is a lack of hope. What’s in Nepal? There is nothing. How can I improve my family’s life in a country crippled by strikes and conflicts? has long been a stock answer to explain why they have come to Qatar.
There have been important generational changes, as well. Nepali youngsters are increasingly turning away from the simple, laborious lives of their parents. Instead, comfort and access to ‘modernity’ has become highly coveted. In such a situation, going abroad is often seen as the only way of making extra money to buy those comforts. Eagerness to support family members and to change futures is accompanied, particularly in central and eastern Nepal, by a deep-rooted culture of migration. Indeed, lahure, the Nepali term today used for an overseas worker, is derived from ‘Lahore’, the destination that sparked the Nepali migratory trend two centuries ago.
While migration had generally been to India, the orientation changed dramatically in the last year and a half. The trend to travel to overseas markets began with a loosening of the passport-issuance regime after Nepal became a democracy in 1990; previously, passport-issue was centralised in Kathmandu, and so restricted access to the poor of the hills and the plains. (Travel to India does not require passports.) In the mid-1990s, the labour requirements of the booming economies of the Gulf and Malaysia became obvious, and Nepal emerged as a leading supplier of an ultra-cheap labour force. The continuous political turmoil and economic crisis in Nepal became a primary ‘push factor’, which opened the spigot of job migration. Before long, Nepal had become a ‘remittance economy’, kept afloat by money sent home by more than 1.5 million overseas migrants, besides many more millions in India.
Working abroad has become a fashionable way of handling one’s life among Nepali youngsters. When, one after another, boys from the same village venture abroad, those remaining inevitably begin to feel an itch to head for Malaysia or Qatar. When the uneducated neighbour comes back a rich man, or regularly sends back money to his family, the others look at him with envy: If he can earn such money, why not me? But lured by dalals (agents), or by returning migrants sharing their experiences, these boys inevitably do not understand the real economic and psychological price they will have to pay in bidesh. In extreme cases, some even lose their lives while abroad: in 2006, 139 Nepali workers died in Qatar; in 2007, this number was as high as 155.
In Qatar, the jobs available to Nepalis are almost exclusively unskilled ones. Having generally not reached the same level of academic qualification or skill level as their Indian counterparts, Nepali migrants are stuck in menial jobs, with 90 percent being employed in the booming construction sector of Qatar. Elsewhere, companies and the government administration employ armies of office boys, mail boys and cleaners, positions that are often filled by young Nepalis. In shops, particularly in the major migrant area at the centre of Doha called National, as well as in the shopping malls, the salesmen are Nepali and speak ‘Nepangrezi’, a mix of Nepali and English, with customers.
There is another class of Nepali migrants in Qatar, which is smaller and less visible. These are educated men who have studied in Nepal or India, who have managed to get an office job as an accountant or logistics coordinator, often in the banking or travel industry. Their salary is higher than that of others, and they can generally afford to bring their families to Doha. Meanwhile, at the very top of the migrant labour pyramid, it is said that there are a total of about 100 Nepali engineers, executives and businessmen working in Qatar.
These are clearly the exceptions. Despite individual success stories, the reality is that the Nepali migrant community here is mainly composed of unskilled or poorly qualified workers, most of whom toil throughout the day in the sun on building sites. Some even have second jobs, often as servants of Qatari, Indian or Western executives. This is a good way of making extra money, and some are able to double or even triple their income. Working in these large homes is also a means of meeting Filipino and Indonesian housemaids, thus adding some spice to what are otherwise relatively monotonous lives.
Most migrant workers live in massive camps outside the city limits, where they spend most of their few non-working hours. Company buses arrive at these camps every morning, pick up the workers, and bring them back immediately after work. At least 60 percent of migrant workers in Qatar live in such areas, such as the Industrial Area near Doha, where hundreds of thousands of men live together in residential camps rented by companies to put up their workers. In a way, this system is similar to the paternalism adopted by Western firms during the 20th century to settle their manpower. But only a few firms – Western-run ones, so migrants say – really seem to care much about their workers’ lives.
The camps are generally made up of one- to three-storey buildings, divided according to nationality. Once a day, in either a mess hall or in their rooms, the Nepali workers are provided rice, daal, vegetables, and chicken or mutton. Up to 16 men are generally crammed into two- or three-tiered bunk beds, where most work hard to carve out tiny private spaces. Posters of Bollywood heroines, a map of Nepal or portraits of Qatari royalty are often hung on the walls.
There is an overpowering craving for technology amongst these migrants. For the majority of men from rural areas, going to Qatar is a way of entering a largely new world made up of TVs, DVDs, digital cameras, mobile phones and chats via the Internet. Within a few months of their arrival, most have already purchased their first mobile phone, which becomes a sign of success. They then spend hours comparing their devices, playing, listening to music on the phones, calling, and sending messages and ‘missed calls’ – the latter being an ingenious way to tell a friend I’m here, or to say goodnight to one’s wife in Nepal, without spending any money. Most will eventually also buy a television and a DVD player in order to watch Bollywood films, often behind a curtain pulled around his bed.
Dalals and ‘sponsorship’
Although some camps are well maintained, offering table tennis, snooker tables and neat kitchens, many are dirty, rat-infested, with unhygienic bathrooms. The workers generally have to make do with whatever living conditions they find, as they have almost no bargaining power with their employers. Starting in January 2008, however, following a bilateral agreement, the Nepali embassy in Doha, in an effort to improve workers’ protection, has begun periodically sending a representative to visit the camps and meet the workers. If inadequate living conditions are noted, letters of complaint are sent to the requisite company.
Although Nepali workers are supposed to be protected by the new labour agreement, they continue to face many problems. Bhim Bahadur is 42 years old, and has been working in a private house as a servant for the past year. He says he is paid just USD 110 per month, works 12 hours a day and never receives any overtime money. He says that he has to eat leftovers, and is beaten if he asks for rest or a raise. “We are treated like animals here in Qatar,” he says, with the obvious agreement of his companions. Some workers have begun taking their situations into their own hands. In 2006, riots erupted in one migrant camp; a similar outbreak took place last November in Dubai.
There are currently around 60 Nepali-run associations that work to help these migrants – by collecting money to pay for medical expenses and also giving assistance to families of migrants who have died on the job. But their impact is slight. Instead, with no trade union to support them, with a weak embassy (consisting of nine workers) and no power to negotiate, Nepali labourers have only themselves and some close associates on whom they can rely.
The troubles start even before they leave Nepal, when would-be migrants have to face the infamous dalals and manpower agencies. The country’s booming ‘manpower export’ sector has attracted more than its share of conmen, who have made it their business to trap gullible village boys. Stories of deceit are commonplace in migration, with phoney dalals promising highly paid jobs abroad – and then disappearing as soon as they get the money. Or, hopeful migrants sign a contract in a language they do not understand, and end up grazing camels instead of working as, say, a mason as promised. Many victims end up indebted for life following such fiascos.
For their part, Gulf countries grant expatriate workers very few rights. The sponsorship system, in which the employer (kafil) becomes responsible for its employee and almost completely controls him, dramatically limits workers’ freedoms. Passports are confiscated on arrival, and it is forbidden to change jobs or leave the country without the approval of the employer. The employer also decides who can stay in Qatar and who must go back to Nepal. Due to this system, workers who, for instance, have not been paid for months and decide to run away, immediately become outlaws. If they are caught by the police, they are automatically sent to the Deportation Centre, in Doha.
In February 2008, there were about 800 Nepalis in this Centre. Many have to stay in this area for a few months, while they figure out how to purchase a ticket back to Nepal. The Nepali embassy has a limited ability to help its nationals, in this and other situations. The embassy houses a shelter, however, where, in February this year, around ten boys were taken in and fed. If particular problems occur with workers, the embassy can also call a company’s managing director, and try to settle a case before it goes to labour court.
The sponsorship system has been coming under increasing criticism in recent years, especially from the Qatari National Human Rights Committee. Some worry that the system is a major restraint to individual freedoms; others even speak of it as promoting a new form of slavery. For their part, migrant workers in Qatar complain less about rights and more about simple feasibility, noting that while daily life has become more and more expensive, there has been no corresponding rise in salary. For those not provided with housing by their employers, such as salesmen, the cost of accommodation is particularly high, with an 83 percent rise in average rent over just the last two years. Qatar lacks a minimum wage and, up to January 2008, there had been no minimum wage imposed by the Nepali embassy. This has meant that a worker’s average basic salary has been only around USD 95-165. In some companies, it is possible to make more money by working overtime, though oftentimes this is not paid.
The difficulties facing workers in Qatar drives many to drink. Those who earn less than QAR 4000 (USD 1100) are not allowed to buy alcohol, but a flourishing black market enables workers to buy whisky imported from India – though at a very high price. One bottle can amount to a week’s salary. For those who cannot afford whisky, a cheap Omani perfume brand, called Luma, is available in all of the shops near the labour camps. Cheaper than whisky, it is much more dangerous to consume. Nonetheless, drunk with soda, Luma is well known among Nepali workers. The hypocrisy of such an alcohol policy is clear, enabling richer workers to drink safely while the poorer end up intoxicating themselves with hazardous items.
Joy and pain
In the midst of lives that could well be described as desperate, Nepali labourers in Qatar nonetheless manage to carve out some niches that feel a bit like home. Every Friday, in the centre of Doha, they gather by the thousands in a place called Nepali Chowk. Here, all kinds of Nepali products can be found: Khukhuri cigarettes, paan and dhaka topis. Every week, 5000 copies of the Nepali-language newspaper Kantipur and 14,000 copies of Rajdhani are sold at Nepali Chowk, as are copies of Nepali songs and films. Friday is also the day when Qatar’s half-dozen Nepali restaurants – bearing such names as Sagarmatha, Himalaya, Nepali Bhansa Ghar, Nepali Chowk, Sansar and Mehamaan – are packed with workers longing for good daal bhat, momos, sukuti and other traditional foods.
It is of course impossible to sum up the lives and achievements of the nearly 300,000 Nepali migrants to Qatar. As the Nepalis in Qatar themselves say, philosophically, “Sukha pani cha, dukha pani cha” (There are good times and hard times). But given the harshness of life in Qatar for these labourers, one wonders whether the arduousness of the experience is really worthwhile. Even as the Kathmandu government looks at remittances as a way of keeping the economy afloat, the question needs at some point to be seriously broached: Do lahures really get rich in Qatar? Is it worth it?
The answer to that question is complex. After years in Qatar, long-held dreams – of buying land and building a house back in Nepal, of being able to provide one’s children with a good education – do become increasingly accessible. This takes time, however, especially given that the first 10 to 16 months are generally spent paying back loans. But just the hope of attaining those dreams, despite difficult living and working conditions, leads men to continue to come and go in great numbers between Qatar and Nepal, as others from Nepal’s far west come and go between their villages and India. Indeed, the future of Nepal does seem to lie, at least partly, in the temporary labour migration undertaken by its men. All the while, it is important to note that this raises a crucial question of economic dependency on a market over which Nepal – its citizens, its embassy, its government – has no power whatsoever.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
flickr / The US Army
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