By Weena Pun
23 March 2017
Risks and opportunities for women migrant labourers from Nepal.
(This is a reportage from our March 2015 print quarterly, ‘Labour and its discontents’. See more from the issue here.)
In early 2004, Sushila Karki Pyakurel was on her way to Israel to work as a caretaker when she met a government official in Bangkok, en route to South Korea, for a sports programme. As soon as the man realised that she was headed for the Middle East all by herself, he asked her to return home immediately. The region was dangerous, he said, and he was willing to pay for her flight back home.
Sushila thought about the offer. She had already had qualms about the idea of working in a distant country. For months she had debated whether it was wise to leave behind her three-year-old son in order to take care of an unknown elderly in Israel.
But if she turned back now, who was going to recuperate the NPR 300,000 (USD 3000) the family spent trying to find her husband a job in Cyprus? An equal sum had already been spent on getting her to Israel. Besides, she was already out of Nepal, and on her way. If she turned back now, she would be returning to nothing more than a rented room in the Jadibuti locality of the Kathmandu Valley and to a small khudra shop in Koteshwor. If she pushed on, Israel, its money and mysteries were waiting. All she had to do was stick it out for a few years, ‘act small’ and not pick a fight with her employers, no matter how angry she felt. She politely declined the official’s offer and boarded the plane to Israel.
Sushila remained in Israel for almost nine years, successively looking after three elderly women and one dying man, and squeezing in two visits to Nepal; the first after four years, the second, three years after that. The worst times were the early days when Sushila did not yet understand Hebrew. Once, just a week into her first assignment, she had gone grocery shopping with the granddaughter of the house. After they returned, the granddaughter realised that she had lost her purse with money inside. The woman started asking Sushila if she had seen the purse. Sushila replied ‘ken’ (‘yes’ in Hebrew), as she was instructed by agent to say in response to every question in Israel. The woman then asked if the purse was inside Sushila’s bag. Not knowing what was being asked, but remembering that ‘ken’ would usually get her out of harm’s way, Sushila said the word again. The granddaughter started rummaging through Sushila’s bag. When nothing was found, the granddaughter called the agent in Israel and told her that Sushila had stolen her purse. Confused and alarmed, Sushila started crying.
After the phone call, the granddaughter pulled a chair from under the dining table and found the lost purse lying there all along. She apologised to Sushila and the episode was soon put behind. Sushila realised she had to master Hebrew, and learned the language in the next four months, with the help of Learn Hebrew textbooks obtained from her agent.
Female labour migration
According to Nepal’s Department of Foreign Employment (DOFE), Sushila is one of the 433 people who applied for labour permits to work in Israel in the fiscal year 2003/04. It is not known how many of them were women. In the fiscal year 2011/12 – the last fiscal year for which data disaggregated by sex and countries is available – 472 women obtained permits to work in Israel. This figure is a fragment of the 22,958 women who received permits to work abroad in that year. Most went to Kuwait (12,495), followed by the United Arab Emirates (4523) and Malaysia (2210). The statistics available from the DOFE do not reflect the number of women who go abroad illegally via India, using the open Nepal-India border. In 2013/14, the total number of women who went abroad for work with official permits went up to 29,154.
If she turned back now, she would be returning to nothing more than a rented room…and to a small khudra shop in Koteshwor. If she pushed on, Israel, its money and mysteries were waiting.
The above data does not indicate how many of these women working abroad are employed in private households, but according to estimates, around 70 percent work as domestic help. This number is on the rise despite sporadic bans restricting women from working as domestic helps abroad. In 1998 after a young woman died under mysterious circumstances in Kuwait, the Nepal Government imposed a ban on women under the age of 30 years working as domestic help overseas. In 2000, this ban was restricted to Gulf countries and in 2010, after years of lobbying by activists, it was lifted. However, in 2012, in response to the rising number of physical and sexual abuse faced by women working overseas, the government reinstated the ban. While many reports state that the 2012 ban only applies to the Gulf countries – perhaps because this is the region where most women travel to for work and from where most cases of exploitation are reported – the official notice issued by the Foreign Employment Promotion Board does not specify any country or region.
The salaries of Nepali domestic workers differ significantly depending on the countries they work in. To compare, a ‘well-paid’ fulltime household help in Nepal earns around NPR 8000 (USD 80) monthly, while those working in the Gulf States and Malaysia make around NPR 30,000 (USD 300) a month. The highest salaries are earned by domestic help in households in the United States, Europe, Japan, Israel or South Korea. There, salaries are as high as NPR 90,000 (USD 900) or more per month. Not surprisingly then, most women (and men) prefer to migrate to the West or other developed economies.
When she started working for an 85-year-old woman with bone cancer in Khadera, Sushila’s salary was USD 550 a month. When the woman died, six months into Sushila’s service, the agent in Israel found her a 92-year-old bedridden woman to take care of. With six months of experience under her belt, Sushila this time made USD 650 every month. Nine months later, this woman also died and Sushila spent the next five and a half years at a vast farm of a 75-year-old Italian Israeli man. Her starting salary at the farm was USD 750 a month. Every year, her salary was raised by USD 50. At the time of the man’s death, she was making USD 1000 monthly, and seven years had passed in Israel. By the time she left the country, she was making USD 1200 a month. Every time she switched employers, the most recent one would provide her a sound reference, which, together with her experience, fetched her higher salary in the subsequent work places. With the money she earned, Sushila sent her son to school, invested in a wood warehouse for her husband to run, and built a three-storied house in Lokanthali in Bhaktapur, just across the Manohora River, not far from where she used to live.
We met in this multi-storied house where Sushila reminisced about her days in Israel. The best times were the five and a half years she spent at the villa of the dying but highly active Italian-Israeli man. He owned and ran a hotel, and had acres of land with sheep, horses, dogs, pet rats, rabbits and chicken. His family was huge and also employed a number of other African workers. Sushila was hired to look after the man, who had a hole in his throat to breathe through, but who was proud and loath to accept her help; he instead sent her to work on the farm, making wine and taking the horses for walks.
Now 36-years-old and back home, Sushila is thinking of getting together with former caregivers she had met in Israel to open a wine business. She had to return to Nepal because it was getting harder to renew her work visa. Israel appears to be following an unofficial policy of making it harder for those who have already been in the country for seven or more years to get their work permits renewed.
The number of women migrating abroad for work increased significantly not long after the popular uprising that ended the monarchy and the decade-long civil war in 2006. In 2006/07, 390 women left for work abroad; this figure soared to 4685 women the following year. The figures rose again after 2010, when the ban on women under 30 was temporarily lifted. In 2011/12, the number of women migrating for employment jumped 120 percent compared to the previous year, to 22,958.
We don’t have bargaining power? Our government has not yet tested its waters.
While there are as many stories of migration as there are women migrants, experiences of harrowing exploitation link many of them. Between September and December 2013, the Nepal Embassy in Saudi Arabia rescued 126 women, most under the age of 30. They had been exploited, economically and sexually, or had had their passports and salaries confiscated by their employers. Similarly, around 250 housemaids are currently seeking shelter in the Nepal Embassy in Kuwait. 25 of them fled the shelter in September after the Government of Nepal could not repatriate them immediately. According to Hom Karki, a Qatar-based reporter for Kantipur Publications, the high number of women seeking shelter is not surprising; many are abused or unable to return home as employers hold payments and refuse to hand over passports and other documents required for an exit visa. Exploitation comes with the territory, says Karki.
The Kafala system, which binds migrant labourers to a sponsor (usually their employer) for the duration of their stay, is widely believed to be responsible for facilitating the exploitation of migrant construction and domestic workers in Gulf countries. Stories of passports being confiscated upon arrival are common but workers are left with little means to seek legal redress, or arrears in pay as they are tied to their sponsor/employer. Women working as maids or domestic help are particularly vulnerable to abuse by their employers. Sushila and her sister were lucky not to know anyone who suffered at the hands of their employers in Israel or elsewhere.
There are various reasons why women in Nepal migrate for work despite the risks, but absolute poverty is not one of them. Migration requires capital: Sushila paid NPR 300,000 (USD 3000) to get to Israel and her sister Pramila took a loan of NPR 450,000 (USD 4500) to join her in 2006. In April 2009, due to the high recruitment fees that agencies were charging potential recruits – generally ranging between NPR 400,000 (USD 4000) and 700,000 (USD 7000) – the Israeli government stopped recruiting caregivers through manpower agencies.
Bandita Sijapati, from the Centre for Study on Labour and Migration (CESLAM) says women (or indeed any migrant) are willing to take the risks of going abroad because of the ‘demonstration effect’. Most migrant workers who return to Nepal use the sums of money acquired abroad, over a relatively short period of time, to build a house or business. Nepalis see their neighbours and peers return with enough capital to secure their futures, build a home or acquire commodities, and so they follow them; increasingly, women too are going.
Reasons why women migrate, however, go beyond the demonstration effect; they relate to economic and social transformations and the impact these have on patriarchal and traditional family structures. With changing economic and social patterns, women in Nepal are increasingly required to work outside their homes. Given this situation, many think they might as well do so abroad, where the pay is higher. Anecdotal evidence (since official data is lacking), suggests that women from indigenous janajati communities are more likely to migrate than women from Madeshi or high-caste Brahmin-Chhettri backgrounds. Single women with children too are more likely to migrate to provide for their children. Many other women go abroad because they have an education and no longer want to work in the fields, while they are not qualified enough to work in positions higher than domestic help. Sushila, for instance, has a 10th-grade School Leaving Certificate and was training to become an Auxiliary Nurse Midwife when she got married and moved to Kathmandu.
I built this house, but no one here says that I did it. They still say that my husband built it.
In spite of the growing trend of female migration, and the potential it holds for economic and social empowerment, the process of migration for women from Nepal remains heavily constrained within patriarchal frameworks. Prohibitions such as the ‘protective’ ban barring women under 30 from working in Gulf countries have only driven women to use irregular channels to migrate to the Gulf (the ban has never been written into the law; instead it was issued as a decision of the cabinet and circulated to the Ministry of Labour and Employment and its Department of Foreign Employment). Some give the wrong age in passports and others travel overland to India to fly out from there, as rescued women receiving shelter in support organisations such as Pourakhi and Maiti Nepal can tell. These are the women most at risk of being exploited and abused. Yet, they do not appear in official records and there is no data on exactly how many women face physical and sexual abuse abroad. According to Manju Gurung of Pourakhi, the figure is high, but under-reported as most women do not even know where to look for help or report abuse.
Most women migrate out of necessity, to secure their own and their families’ futures. While no research links the relation between unequal inheritance laws and women labour migration, the question has to be asked: Would women migrate as frequently if they could inherit land and had a better economic support system in Nepal? Do women with no land to till or business to run migrate because they have the least to lose?
Some believe that Nepalis continue to be exploited abroad, especially in the Gulf countries, because Nepal has no muscle power when it comes to foreign affairs and diplomacy. Others call this just another excuse to turn a blind eye. “These countries in the Gulf cannot afford European and North American migrant labourers. They … don’t want African people in their households. Southeast Asia and South America are doing well enough that they do not need to send their citizens to drudge abroad. The only remaining region is Southasia, and we don’t have bargaining power? Our government has not yet tested its waters,” said Bandita Sijapati.
Nepal has signed a memorandum of understanding on labour with only five countries: Bahrain, Qatar, South Korea, the UAE and Japan. The memorandums acknowledge the relationship between Nepal and the countries as labour-sending and labour-receiving nations and formulate ways in which they can work together to help labourers avoid exploitation in Nepal and the receiving country.
However, what the increasing number of complaints suggest is that exploitation begins in Nepal, long before the migrants reach their destination countries, and at the hands of Nepalis – the agents and agencies, workers in the DOFE, and officials at Tribhuvan International Airport. Most women, even when they are recruited by manpower agencies and in theory have access to agents, fly on individual labour permits – a tactic employed by the agencies to avoid accountability in case something happens to the worker abroad.
Stories of exploitation aside, women who go abroad despite tremendous social barriers, come home transformed, with their futures shaped in new ways. Some realise how stifling patriarchy at home is. “I built this house, but no one here says that I did it. They still say that my husband built it,” says Sushila, who also questions the current law on inheritance that bars married daughters from receiving a share.
Her sister Pramila, who was just 19 when she left for Israel and had to struggle the first two years in Israel working at many different homes without being able to make any money, feels a little defeated. She talks about using her seven years of experience in Israel to start her own elderly care business in Nepal. But she also says that if given the opportunity, she might go abroad again. This poem she wrote while in Israel reflects the feelings of a young migrant worker abroad:
I wandered everywhere in a place like Israel
Minakshi, an agent, ate my Dollars
And I sat hungry, watched hungry from this stifling
Hoping for the day this life takes off.
~Weena Pun is a writer based in Kathmandu.