The Desert Race

October 17, 2013 , by Ramesh Lal Nakarmi, Leave your thoughts
The Desert Race » My Dreams Mag

The migrant labourers are taking risks and providing for the nation on their own, where the government has failed them. The government should not be focused solely on milking remittance, which has come to be an important pillar of the national economy. It must promote employment and industrial development, and those who put the lives of Nepali citizens at risk on foreign lands must be dealt with severe legal action.


The Qatar story is not a completely new discovery. The recent media explosion on stories of exploited migrants is nothing that has not been written about before. Why has this news suddenly become a matter of national and personal importance to us? There have been news of exploited Nepalis previously, in local newspapers and media, perhaps just as insightful and factual. Why do we fail to react when these news are highlighted by our own news agencies?

The unpleasant truth is that it became important to Nepalis only after the story was published (bloated with the term ‘investigation’) by “The Guardian”, even though we know that these international news agencies mostly serve their own interests. Once our news are published by international media, our nationality is challenged. Otherwise, Nepali lives trapped in Gulf/Arab countries, Korea and Malaysia, lives at risk, lives lost, and unthinkable working conditions doesn’t even cross our minds. Why do we tend to validate our nationality through foreign media?

Journalist Devendra Bhattarai was right in his article in Kantipur Daily that The Guardian and the entire country of Nepal (not to mention the world) saw only the tip of the iceberg and missed the entire iceberg.


The Game

I. Lack of Business/Employment Environment

It all begins on home ground, even before the migrant workers queue up at District Administration Office or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the world’s most underprivileged passport. The game is already on, they merely fall into the trap. Their lands, homes, families and lives are pawned in the hopes of winning a match that is already fixed. The majority of Nepali labourers leaving the country are forced to make that decision due to economic reasons. They believe foreign labour gives them an opportunity (of providing an agreeable life, if not lavish, to their family members) they cannot get in their own homeland. Most of them are young and full of physical and mental capabilities. I, for one, had a different reason to leave the country for the sweltering heat of the Gulf. I wanted to be away from my family, to repair my disintegrating relationship with them, and live a life of my own.

II. Get a Passport

Unfair pay in the Gulf countries? Nepalis spend more than what they will earn per month in Gulf just trying to acquire the license to earn: a Passport. Our government still doesn’t have an efficient mechanism to serve the applicants of passport. It cannot save its already economically challenged citizens from being extorted by form-fill-up agents, photography agents, submission agents, and many other such agents.

On top of these vulture-like agents, the MoFA itself has a questionable system of service, charging double the amount for Express Service (NPR. 10,000 for service within one-week) of the regular fee (NPR. 5,000 service within one month). Shouldn’t the passport, by default, be provisioned with shortest service time-line? Since it is evidently possible to complete the process within a week, why does it take one month for regular citizens? Why are we the LAST country, after exceeding the deadline, to be issuing machine readable passports?

Finally, you acquire a passport after wasting days at MoFA – Dept. of Passports. In the process, you spend extra fund on lodging, food, transportation, lose more faith in the country, and become further determined to take a chance at what lies ahead.

III. Apply for Job through Manpower Agencies

FREE VISA! FREE AIR-TICKET! FREE MEAL! FREE ACCOMMODATION! is what most of those job seekers are lured by. In fact, companies seeking foreign labourers do provide visa and air-ticket for free, some including accommodation and daily meals, depending on the nature of work and company policies.

IV. Health Certification

After a job interview conducted by the company and local agency representatives, the selected candidates have to acquire a health certificate, specifically of TB, Yellow Fever, Blood & Urine test and Testicles (I never knew about this one, but the Doctor or Assistant Medical person, whoever, actually assesses the men’s testicles with their hand), etc., at the health clinic commissioned by the agency itself. Health certificates should be accepted from any government or certified health clinic/hospital, but the agency forces you to pay the clinic they recommend. That costs anywhere between NPR. 500-1,000.

V. Cost of Finding a Job

Once the medical certificates are cleared, arrives the celebratory “Congratulations”. Employment contracts, Electronic visas, Air Tickets, and the date of departure are announced, but withheld until the service charge is cleared. The charge is NPR. 20,000 according to government regulations, but the actual cost is way higher than advertised (which is communicated in advance). It usually is between NPR. 50,000 -2,50,000, depending on the salary the designated job ensues.

Private communication between the job seeker and the agent persuades the candidates that that is quite fair, since the agency is but a commercial company that needs to sustain itself. After all, the applicant found a good job with their help. An understanding is established about the amount that will be quoted on the receipt. The receipt shows NPR. 20,000, whatever the candidate is actually charged. And besides, with the dubious papers, and the legal jargon, how could these migrant labourers ever figure out what they have signed?

I myself paid NPR. 70,000 and received a receipt of NPR. 20,000. My remuneration for the job was (Bahraini Dinar) BHD. 250 + BHD 100 as Housing & Transportation allowance, which came to approximately NPR. 70,000 per month.

This cost adds to the financial burdens a migrant already has been struggling with. It often leads to high-interest loans, pawning house/land, or selling mother’s/wife’s jewellery.

VI. Immigration Channel at TIA

So they receive their employment contracts on the day of departure. But they receive not just one, but two of them. One is supposed to be original, and other they say is for immigration, although the second one is the one with the Labour approval stamp from the Department of Labour. That is to be displayed at TIA immigration and the immigration at the Host nation. And to be destroyed after clearing the checkpoint.

This is the moment of realization, of being caught between the devil and the deep-blue-sea. THIS is one of the traps the migrating workers find themselves in even before they leave the nation. The encounter with the mystery is traumatizing, and leaves them with no more confidence of what awaits in the host-country. The second contract claims their job and the salary to be different than what they are employed for. Little do they know that everything is already ‘set’ between the officials of DoL and manpower agencies to approve such fake contracts without investigation.

The workers then become walking billboards with the caps and t-shirts of their respective agencies, serving as Brand Ambassadors for their office. With heart thumping like a jackhammer, prayers abound for a gentler future, for a happy family at home, without being bewitched or deceived. A tiny strand of hope still lingers, despite the uncertainty, after receiving the boarding pass.

The immigration point is another jolt of reality. The migrants face indifferent and condescending treatment when they are at their most vulnerable, and reach out to that flickering flame of faith on their nation to hold on to. The officer at the counter speaks to them as to unruly cattle lined up for dispatch.

There is a sigh of relief as they finally board the plane, settle on the seats, witness safety instructions (for the first time in their lives). They experience very first feeling of take off and huddling by the window to see if they happen to fly over their hometown when the aircraft is aloft, and remind themselves of the promises to keep.

VII. Landing & Immigration Channel at Gulf Country

As the aircraft parks and the door opens, there is the poignant excitement of already being there, barely 6 hours away (probably much less than the time it takes for them to get home from Kathmandu).

What hits them that first moment is the shock of heat, obnoxious smell of petroleum in the air, and nostrils fighting to keep out the hot air from lungs used to the softer, cooler air of Nepal. That is the moment they realize what they are going to live in, day in and day out.

Immigration here is somehow much more dignified, smoother, and less time-consuming than in their country of origin. A company agent is already present with necessary papers; original print of visa, and local currency at hand for immigration fees for each employee. Off they go.

But the nauseating smell doesn’t end. It never ends.

VIII. Accommodation

The company micro-van or bus transports them to their ‘accommodation’. For some it is temporary, for some they are permanent residences of squalor. The story of the few lucky ones, who are hired by bigger companies, is completely different. They are taken to their temporary apartments for two weeks before they can find a place to rent.

That first day in Gulf isn’t as simple as it may sound. If the air-conditioners aren’t on, you can’t survive even an hour. Even inside the best company apartments, the air is thick with smell of petroleum, desert, and sea water (if peninsular). The first venturing out from the ‘room’ is stifling due to the excessive heat. Suddenly they find themselves huddled around the dry, cold air of the air-conditioner.

IX. Reporting at Work

Collect ID Cards. Handover the passports, which will be shelved and never seen again until the contract expires. Although, it is “illegal” for companies to possess the passports of the employees according to their own law, this happens in every Gulf country. The migrant worker has no choice. Beggars can’t be choosers, this is when the famous quote applies.

X. Life in the Gulf

Except for those who are employed in back office work, retail stores, or hotels & restaurants, the majority go to work the next day in blue collar jump-suits, towels/scarves around their heads to keep the head cool, and a bottle of water that heats up with the progression of the day. The idea of decent ‘company accommodation’ turns out to be an extra-large room for 15 to 35 people, either with bunk-beds or mattresses (which they have to buy themselves). Construction workers, garbage collectors, and mechanics toil through the day under temperatures of 45-50 deg Celsius. On a hood of a parked car without shade, one can fry an egg.

Their body and lungs are suddenly in battle. They resort to chilled cans of aerated soft drinks (cheapest at NPR. 20 per can) or water. Temporarily comforted by the chilled drinks, they go back to routine extremes. The excess physical labour, the frustration, and the gloomy revelation of their two-year contract stretches before their eyes. They realize that ‘that’ was not what they had prepared for.

Exposure to extreme heat and sudden dip in temperature in living quarters day in and day out throws a person into unpredictable physical and mental conditions. It often ends in silent sleep at night or at work-site. Heart failure.

XI. The Wage

What seems like a handsome wage in Nepal turns out to be a nightmare. The wages of most labourers is NPR. 15,000-30,000. Due to the high living cost there, they hardly get to send back even NPR. 5000 a month. The future takes on a bleak shade of impatience and despair.

I visited the accommodation of fellow Nepali workers while in Bahrain. I met young Nepalis from many districts, some of them college graduates, in garbage collection companies. I met those in civil construction, who are deployed on public roads and construction sites. I met a man from Bhaktapur, a graduate who used to have his own curio-shop, but since the economic prospect was plummeting, decided to seek whatever job prospect he found. Alas! He ended up in a garbage company, sharing a 40ft by 40ft room with 25 other men sprawled across the room. When I went in, somebody was bringing in big pots of rice and vegetables they bought with shared expense. I met the security-guards of the newly constructed biggest mall in Bahrain, whose wage was a meagre BHD 75 (NPR. 15,000). Some were even security in-charge of the mall. I met Nepali boys and girls working in sparkling toilets as janitors. Some of them were college graduates. Their wage was not handsome either. While on duty, all their working hours is limited to the 5-star level public toilets. Their supervisors were South Indian, Sri-Lankan, Filipinos, etc. The reason Nepalis did not get higher level jobs was their language and communication deficiency.

And these apart from the cases of tortured Nepali women whom this article cannot even begin to address. Of girls being abducted from roads, from their own rooms, raped, murdered and/or disappeared. I heard those screams calling for help, without knowing where it was even coming from. And then heard them on the news the next day.


The brain drain from this country cannot stop until the entire scenario improves, which means an improvement in the standard of education and plenty of employment opportunities for our growing youth population. However, since that is not going to happen in the near future, some steps can make lives easier for those who continue to migrate every day.

The presence of Nepali Embassy by the immigration channel at the host country would be a great help. Their purpose would be to reassure Nepali workers of the home connection and government vigilance. There have been many Nepali workers stranded at Doha, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai airports, with no clue of what is going on, no money in the pocket, no food, and nobody coming to pick them up. Proactive rescue action for such workers would go a long way towards helping out our countrymen. Before we point a finger at the Gulf countries for mistreating our compatriots, we need to take a look at how concerned we are about their mistreatment in their own land.

The migrant labourers are taking risks and providing for the nation on their own, where the government has failed them. The government should not be focused solely on milking remittance, which has come to be an important pillar of the national economy. It must promote employment and industrial development, and those who put the lives of Nepali citizens at risk on foreign lands must be dealt with severe legal action. Admittedly, manpower companies are commercial business enterprises. But at the same time, they must be answerable for the well-being, safety and empowerment of their clients. They are providing the opportunities for countless citizens of Nepal to earn. Their work is very valuable for the economy and the nation, but how low can one stoop to make money out of unsuspecting countrymen? They are familiar with the woes of their clients, but the unregulated practice that is almost akin to selling people like cattle to butchers must end. It is also imperative that the government prioritize this demographic with proper labour and foreign policies, credible diplomatic representatives who will be working for the best interest of their citizens.

However, until then, this same cycle will continue again and again. The plane that flew just over your house, is transporting these very migrant labourers, taking them to the land of their hope. They are probably looking out of those tiny windows to see if they can see their home-town, with promises and prayers in their hearts. Shall we wait for international media to report other cases of exploitations, severe and unfair work conditions, and untimely death at workplaces?

The article is written by the writer out of personal experiences and observations and is entirely his personal opinion. Images are outsourced by the writer himself. The publication does not hold any responsibility or ownership over them. 


Text by: Ramesh Lal Nakarmi
Co-Editor: Sewa Bhattarai

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