For Nepal's widows, Qatar remains a migrant graveyard

Bodies of two to three migrant workers sent back to Nepal each day
For Nepal's widows, Qatar remains a migrant graveyard

Manika Newar sits in the apartment room in Kathmandu she now shares with her two children and three relatives (Photo by Francis Wade)

The last phone call came one afternoon in April. Over the crackled line from Qatar, Gyan bemoaned the intense heat he was forced to labor in, for a day’s shift that far outlasted the hours stipulated on his contract. His wife listened on, but after three minutes, the credit ran out and the line was cut. Gyan would have returned to the construction site in Doha, and Manika to her home in the remote eastern Nepalese village of Bhoji, expecting to hear from him the following week. But that was their final conversation – 12 days later, on 27 April, word came through that Gyan had been found lifeless in his bed.

Manika Newar joins the swelling ranks of Nepalese wives who have lost husbands abroad. Every day now on average the bodies of two to three migrant workers are arriving back in Kathmandu from the Gulf States and Malaysia. Only 29, and a mother of two, Manika couldn’t read the certificate that accompanied Gyan’s body – she was forced into work at a young age, and remains illiterate. It took a relative to explain what was written on the document: that the body of Gyan Bahadur Newar, 25 at the time of death, had been embalmed and sent back to Nepal before an autopsy was carried out. The cause of death remains unknown, as does the bearer of responsibility, meaning Manika cannot bring a legal case against Gyan’s employer.

Three thousand kilometers away, and a leap in GDP per capita of more than $93,000, Qatar couldn’t be further from the reality of the life that Manika and Gyan forged in Bhoji. The scant paid work they could find brought in less than $2 a day. “When we couldn’t find work that paid us cash we would work for grain,” says Manika from the cramped apartment room on the edge of Kathmandu that she and her two children now share with three distant relatives. Gyan apparently wasn’t alone in thinking the outside world offered greater riches: 2.2 million Nepalese are working abroad, meaning nearly half of all households are down a member, and the numbers are rising.

For a young farmer without a reliable income, Qatar was alluring. The small peninsula is a shining example of the colossal economic growth of the past decade that has yanked the Gulf States out of desert obscurity. The skyscrapers of its capital, Doha, rise proudly from a square of land that juts out into the sea, winking in the blazing sun and decked in fluorescent lights at night. And all around them are construction sites where foundations are being laid for endless further growth. But on the ground there, dwarfed by the cranes and skyscrapers their predecessors built, tens of thousands of workers from backwater villages in Nepal toil from morning to evening, laying brick and metal for soon-to-be hotels, shopping centers and World Cup stadiums.

In April, when Gyan first arrived in Doha, midday temperatures were hitting 40 degrees Celsius. He would have been told upon signing a contract with a recruitment agency in Kathmandu that workers were free to break when the sun was at its fiercest. But the pledges made in Kathmandu often don’t materialize in Doha, and returning laborers report that they were made to work throughout the day in the harshest of conditions. By evening they would return to their air-conditioned shared quarters, but the lure of the cold can be fatal, with the body unable to cope with the sharp drop in temperature. That may have been Gyan’s fate, but Manika will likely never know – the funeral has taken place, but the certificate still reads: “Cause of death will be defined after autopsy”.

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The office of the Pravasi Nepali Coordination Committee (PNCC), a Kathmandu-based migrant rights group, sees a steady trickle of similar cases from the Gulf States. If the heat doesn’t wear down the workers, then attacks by employers can. Som Prasad Lamichhane, general secretary of the PNCC, met with two Nepalese girls late last year who said they had been beaten every day by their Qatari employer.

Promises from the Qatar government to reform the kafala system, ostensibly aimed at monitoring migrant laborers in the Gulf States and Middle East, but which actually ties foreign workers to their employers in a form of bonded labour, are yet to be implemented, says Som. This means that exploitation continues unabated. The implications of this in Qatar are far-reaching – around 1.2 million residents there are migrant workers who make up more than 90 percent of the workforce.

Bijaya Dallakoti, 21, returned from Qatar on June 15. Posted by an agency in late May to work nightshifts in a bakery near Doha International Airport, he lasted less than three weeks, and now finds himself back in Kathmandu, recounting his misfortunes to the PNCC.

It wasn’t the fact that his wage was significantly less than promised, he says, or that he sometimes worked 18-hour days instead of the 10 hours the agency told him. It wasn’t even that he was forced to share a two-room apartment with 13 others, or that sleep was taken in revolving shifts with the colleague who worked daytimes and slipped into Bijaya’s bed in the evening as he left for his night shift. Instead, while operating a dishwasher, a shard of metal broke off and dug itself deep into the index finger of his left hand, rendering him unable to work. Having not lasted the full month, he was sent back to Nepal unpaid.

Som says that in cases like Bijaya’s, where a $425 debt could take months to pay off, there are few other options but to turn to loan sharks. They can charge interest rates of more than 40 percent, and prey on injured workers and the families of those who have died abroad. “Before, you had a dream that you could go to a foreign country and earn a salary,” Som tells Bijaya. “But that didn’t happen. So go home to your town and see what your options are there.”

But for Manika, those options don’t exist. She has been pitched from her village into the frenetic world of Nepal’s capital, unable to read, with two children to raise and only a vague idea of what befell her husband of eight years. She’ll receive just under $1,000 in compensation from the Qatari government for his death – that could take a year to arrive.

Stories like Manika’s might give pause to the hordes of young men pouring into agency offices in Kathmandu each day, were it not for the fact that their choices here are almost uniquely limited. Nepal is among the world’s poorest countries, and its agricultural sector, one of the few routes to income for people like Manika and Gyan, grew by only 1.3 percent last year.

In contrast, Qatar is the richest country by a stretch, and news of the opportunities that accompany its reliance on cheap labor are well known in Nepal’s most remote regions. Around 1,500 people fly out of the country each day to work abroad, a busy migratory passage that begins in the mountains and river valleys of the Himalayan state and ends in a construction site or hotel kitchen half a world away. Qatar’s thirst for growth ensures that the figure will continue to rise. But with the country’s rush to prepare for the World Cup in 2022 sidelining efforts to improve conditions for foreign workers, the wooden boxes carrying young workers back to the Nepali capital every day are unlikely to stop arriving.

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