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Women migrant workers from Nepal: Govt needs to ensure proper documentation, not a ban

Illustration: Oxford Human Rights Hub
Illustration: Oxford Human Rights Hub

Whereas foreign employment was the men’s field until the past few decades. along with women’s education and empowerment, the doors have also been open for Nepali women too. Consequently, many women have been going abroad for different jobs on a daily basis.

Yet, foreign employment for women in Nepal is still a disputed issue in Nepali society as there have been cases of women facing gender-based violence and discrimination during their work abroad. Labour migration may contribute to their economic empowerment, yet the experience of migrating from the country of origin to destination is not always safe and secure for them. They are doubly vulnerable to violence, first as women and then as migrants.

Hence, the government has imposed a partial ban on women’s labour migration from Nepal, but this has again added fuel to multiple disputes surrounding the sector.

To talk about the violence faced by women migrant workers from Nepal on the occasion of 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, Onlinekhabar has recently talked to Bijaya Rai Shrestha, the founder and chairperson of the Aaprbasi Mahila Kamdar Samuha (AMKAS) Nepal, an organisation working for the rights of women migrant workers.

Excerpts:

How vulnerable are women migrant workers to violence in comparison to their male counterparts?

There is a risk of violence among women migrant workers in every step of the migration process. Most women opt for foreign employment, especially when they are left with no other alternatives. Most of them are illiterate or have only a few years of education and are already the victims of domestic violence or any other forms of gender-based violence. Therefore, for a want of proper awareness, they resort to going for domestic work illegally through India. This is happening also because the government has imposed a ban on Nepali women’s migration to work as domestic workers in the Gulf countries in 2017.

It means thousands of women migrant workers from Nepal are not documented by the government, and hence more vulnerable. During the migration process, agents/ groups posing as recruitment agencies can do anything for them because the government is not looking after them. We have dealt with many cases in which women were locked in a room in India, and starved. They also become the target for exploitation and trafficking. 

Even when women reach the country of destination after passing all the hurdles, most of them find they have been cheated about the type of work and as they have resorted to the illegal way to reach there. Further, many of their employers exploit them. They are physically and sexually assaulted, underpaid, untimely paid, are forced to overwork.

When they manage to escape and reach the Nepali embassy in the destination country, the undocumented women migrant workers are usually disappointed because the embassies cannot help them (for being undocumented). Even when they are deported back to Nepal, they are subjected to multiple forms of violence because many of them return empty-handed. It becomes very difficult for them to reintegrate into society. Hence, they again resort to foreign employment and the cycle continues.

This is about the women who resort to illegal routes. But, what about those women who are educated and have gone for foreign employment legally?

Those women who are educated migrate generally for career opportunities and are less likely to migrate for escaping abusive relationships or domestic violence. This is one category of women migrant workers.

Nepalis in the United Arab Emirates wait to board their repatriation flight to Nepal, at the Abu Dhabi airport, on Sunday, June 21, 2020.

But, even they are having to bear a lot of violence. The recruitment agencies usually lie to them about the work and they are forced to be domestic workers although they are promised something else. When they try to speak against it, they are physically assaulted and are subjected to abuse. When they ask the agents to take them back, they are forcefully made to sign an agreement that they have got all their money back and hence cannot complain about it. This ends their access to justice.

Also, they don’t find embassies or missions cooperating with them for support.

What are the challenges faced by women migrant workers on the road to justice?

The main reason why women migrant workers suffer is that there is no practice of labour diplomacy at the Nepali embassies. Also, labour courts are not in place in every country. Moreover, many women migrant workers do not have any idea where to go to seek justice and lodge complaints.

Also, recruitment agencies or brokers have a lot of power over them. Though the government has provided free tickets and free visas, the agencies trick them to pay a larger amount than actually required while making them sign an agreement that they have paid only the needed amount. 

For instance, even if they pay Rs 200,000, the agreement is made that they have paid only Rs 10,000, in which the workers also promise they will bear all my expenses if anything happens. Therefore, the workers lack ample evidence to fight against these agencies and seek justice.

This has happened due to the poor monitoring system, weak punishment and prosecution provisions made by our government.

If the government had worked on finding the root cause of violence against women migrant workers and taken action accordingly for the safety and security of migrant workers, instead of imposing the ban, this problem could have been solved.  

What are the challenges in the reintegration of such returnees?

If women migrant workers return empty-handed, they are stigmatised more and subjected to more violence. But, if they come back with some earnings, the chance is reduced. The more money they bring, the less they are subjected to stigma and violence.

Most of those who come empty-handed even fear going back to their own home. Also, there are many who have returned pregnant, many come with children born out of extramarital affairs. They also fear going home because of stigmatisation.

The process of reintegration is very challenging for women migrant workers.

What has been done to minimise such risks by the government and other stakeholders?

Nepal is known as one of the progressive countries in South Asia, considering its law. The government officials also sit with civil society like us for consultation. Nepal has also ratified the Palermo Protocol. The only thing that is problematic is that the implementation and monitoring part is very weak.

Globally, there have been many efforts for the rights of domestic workers. It has already been a decade since the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has brought ILO Convention 189. However, it has been ratified by only 32 countries. This convention has still not been ratified by our government. 

There are many platforms working for assuring the rights of migrant workers including the Global Forum on Migration and Development and Abu Dhabi Dialogue.

Officials of Nepal and Qatar during a joint technical committee meeting in Kathmandu on Friday, December 3, 2021.
Officials of Nepal and Qatar during a joint technical committee meeting in Kathmandu on Friday, December 3, 2021.

So, what remains to be done for ensuring the safety and basic human rights of women migrant workers?

Firstly, the government should lift the ban and ensure that all the women migrant workers are documented and the government should facilitate the migration process.

As the ban is still there, the government needs to at least monitor and stop the practice of migrating to the country of destination through India. It needs to monitor the agencies properly, and punishment should be made stricter. Where have we heard that an agency or related person is being jailed for trafficking a woman in the name of foreign employment?

Moreover, the government should work with the private sector on generating better employment opportunities in Nepal itself so that there will not be any forced migration. There are a lot of things that the government has to do for making both the sides, the country of origin and the country of destination, responsible for the migrant workers. For this, the government needs to work on doing proper bilateral agreements with other countries.

Besides, the recruitment agencies also should be made accountable for the workers they send until they return.

However, migration is an ongoing process and every time, there is a change of trend of traffickers and migration. Hence, it has been a challenge for national as well as global leaders.

The government should focus on exploring other countries besides the Gulf where women migrant workers can enjoy their human rights, in particular the right to work. The government also needs to strengthen the practice of labour diplomacy.

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Budhathoki is a correspondent at Onlinekhabar.

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