Gulf dreams turn to dust for Nepal migrant workers

Nepalis migrant workers arrive at the entrance to Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu on September 27, 2013. Photo : AFP

KATHMANDU: As he recalls the 12-hour days, blistering temperatures and lack of drinking water on a construction site thousands of miles away in the Gulf, Purna Bahadur Budhathoki makes a solemn vow.

“I will never go back to Qatar,” said the 29-year-old, now back home in Nepal. “So many young people leave the country for work but I just want to go back to my village.”

Like hundreds of thousands of his compatriots, Budhathoki was lured to the Gulf by the prospect of earning the kind of money he could only dream of in his impoverished homeland.

After stumping up 120,000 Nepali rupees (around $1,200) to a licensed employment agency, he landed a job as a bulldozer driver with a salary large enough to provide for his wife and four children.

But things started to go wrong soon after he began work on a building project in the capital Doha, when the construction company confiscated his passport and refused to issue a work permit.

When he spoke up, the manager of the firm threatened to have him beaten.

“He ordered me to just shut up and work. I felt scared, and that I had no option but to get back to work,” he told AFP.

Around a million Nepalis work abroad, with Southeast Asia or the Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia a frequent destination.

But in recent years, there has been an explosion in the numbers heading to the tiny emirate of Qatar where a construction boom is gathering pace as it prepares to host the 2022 football World Cup.

The remittances go a long way in Nepal and there is no shortage of men willing to take out big loans for the airfare and other start-up costs. The government in Kathmandu says there are around 300,000 Nepalis workers currently in Qatar.

But a recent report by Britain’s Guardian newspaper, which detailed how 44 Nepalis migrants died over the summer when temperatures can go beyond 50 degrees, has highlighted the grim living conditions.

In an interview with AFP in Kathmandu days after his return, Budhathoki recounted how he and his colleagues would work from dawn to dusk, often without protective helmets or gloves.

They had to hide when police visited the site for ID inspections. He did not want the name of the construction site revealed.

Rameshwar Nepal, who recently carried out an investigation in Qatar for Amnesty International, described the working conditions as akin to “bonded labour” with many labourers going for weeks without pay.

He said the biggest problems stemmed from the controversial Kafala system, in which workers are required to get permission to leave the company or go home and allows employers to confiscate their passports.

“This is similar to the bonded labour because without the employers’ permission, workers can’t move to companies that paid them better.

“We visited a camp in Doha where we found that about 50 labourers had been living without food for more than a week,” he said.

“The majority of the workers were Nepali who lived in crammed rooms, sleeping in bunk beds. There was no power, so the heat was unbearable.”

Budhathoki lived in a room measuring eight by ten feet with seven other men. Their building “had cracks everywhere and felt like it could crumble any minute”.

Increasingly desperate, he finally managed to get help from Nepal’s embassy in Qatar, which pressured his employer to return his passport, allowing him to return home after five months.

The father of three young daughters and a nine year-old son is planning to head to his home village in Salyan, western Nepal, in the next few days — back to a life of toil on a farm but at least his own man.

Many others are not so fortunate.

An average of two coffins carrying the bodies of migrant workers arrive daily in Kathmandu’s international airport and their deaths mean disaster for their families.

When Dol Bahadur Khadka landed a job as a welder in Qatar his wife Durga Devi Khadka hoped it would be the family of seven’s passport out of poverty.

But when her husband fell to his death on a building site, she not only lost her husband but was also saddled with the cost of repaying the $1,200 loan which took him to the Gulf.

“We have lost everything because he was our only hope for a better future,” the 44-year-old told AFP in a phone interview from the village of Pala, some 230 kilometres (140 miles) west of Kathmandu.

Durga Devi was one of Khadka’s two wives — polygamy is common in rural Nepal — and the family includes four teenage daughters and a 14-year-old boy.

Khadka who began his job in Qatar at the start of the year, had managed to send back around 13,000 rupees before his death.

Although Khadka’s employers did pay the family some 700,000 rupees in compensation, his widow says that money was almost entirely swallowed up by the costs of his repatriation and funeral.

“He left home to support his family, hoping that life would get better and we would be able to pay for our children to be properly educated,” she said.

“We now work as daily wage labourers in the farms. It’s hard to earn a living.”