The earthquake last month left countless families in Nepal homeless. But for about 2 million Nepalis, the displacement began long ago, when they were driven by economic hardship to seek jobs abroad at construction sites, salons and households. Now the fallout of globalization is deepening their communities’ devastation.
About one-third of Nepali households, according to the United Nations, “have at least one member working and living abroad.” Migrant income remittances contribute about 30 percent of GDP. Many work in neighboring India; others labor in Middle East construction zones, where they face brutal exploitation, or in New York, where their wages are stolen in the underground service economy. The people these workers support, including the elderly and children, are in many cases facing the disaster’s aftermath on their own. That’s because Nepal’s overseas workers face extreme pressure, from employers and economic barriers, to stay away.
Another catch-22 that keeps migrants stuck abroad is the debt cycle, as they are coerced into paying recruiters usurious fees to secure harsh, exploitative jobs. In the Gulf nations, laws known as the kafala system bond indebted workers to their employers, making migrants unable to leave the country without the boss’s permission. With high poverty and low literacy rates, Nepalese migrants often face labor and sex trafficking, lethal accidents (many have died on construction sites) and sexual abuse (with domestic helpers sometimes working in virtual captivity)—while their incomes are still not enough to lift their communities out of poverty. But often youth, especially those in rural areas, have little choice but to migrate, since Nepal’s longstanding civil unrest and uneven neoliberal development have thwarted stable job growth.
The International Trade Union Confederation has pressed the governments of Qatar and other Gulf states to offer temporary “amnesty” from kafala. But General Secretary Sharan Burrow says via e-mail that as of Friday, Qatar has not lifted kafala restrictions, so workers face dire consequences should they try to escape home.