Two years after Nepal’s powerful earthquake, slow pace of reconstruction offers an opportunity for the nation to change its economic model, which leans heavily on remittances from Nepali migrant workers. It is a “unique moment” to create jobs that protect workers’ rights, pay fair wages and boost the economic status of its citizens, according to a new report by U.S.-based groups Solidarity Center and JustJobs Network.
Eight years ago, Rubina Lama moved to Kathmandu from her nearby village and started working as a cook in a student hostel. One day, flipping the national daily newspaper Rubina came across an advertisement for a “golden opportunity in Japan.” Instantly, she knew she should grab this opportunity.
The next day, she visited the labor recruiting agency providing the chance to work in the Japanese garment industry. The agent assured her that there would be no fees as long as she began language and tailoring training. For Rubina, there was nothing more to ask. She immediately started classes, joining some three dozen other trainees, almost all under the age of 30.
It never occurred to her that the agent might ask for money in near future. Two weeks into the training, the agent asked her for 40,000 rupees (approximately $400) to cover costs.
Managing her work as a cook and taking two classes were not easy for Rubina. But nothing could beat her determination, she says. In addition to her coursework, she continued working in the morning and evening at the hostel. Rubina says, “Only after I finished my work late at night at the hostel, did I have time to study and do the homework given in the language training. The girls of the dormitory always used to joke of my determined dream of going to Japan.”
Rubina was very excited as the training went well for the first few months. One day the agent told her, “A Japanese man is going to come soon to observe your tailoring skills and progress.” This information increased her determination. She felt closer to her dream of working and living in Japan. The following day, the agent said that each trainee would have to deposit 600,000 rupees (approximately $6,000) for visa application processing for Japan. He added that for those students who paid the fee quickly, the process would start immediately.” After a week or so, a Japanese man indeed visited the tailoring training classes. Meeting the Japanese observer confirmed that Rubina could not let her Japan dream slip away.
The sum demanded by the agent to process a visa was huge. Rubina confided her dream to her father, who wholeheartedly supported his daughter’s chance at a brighter future in Japan. Her father, however, had no source of income and decided to take a loan out against the only piece of land he owed to secure the fee. Rubina handed the $6,000 to the agent immediately after completing the bank procedure.
Days, months and years passed by after handing over the money. The agent kept saying that the process was moving. Rubina kept believing his assurances. Meanwhile, payment of the monthly interest for the loan was becoming increasingly difficult to pay on time. Around the same period, Lama’s father was diagnosed with cancer. Rubina was mentally and physically exhausted by juggling combined problems—the loan, her father’s worsening health and the stagnant visa process. However, Rubina continued to attend trainings provided by the agent.
Two years passed, the visa application still in process, which kept her hopes alive. One day, Rubina says the agent called advising her to quit her cooking job as her visa for Japan was on its way. Trusting him, she gave up her job and went back home to be with her ill father. Another year passed, with no visa. Rubina’s aspirations for Japan were still alive. Five years passed, and lost her father.
Completely broken inside and with empty hands, Rubina decided to return Kathmandu—still nurturing her spirit and determination to work in Japan. She started calling and calling the agent. One day, he answered her call, again reassuring her that the visa application process was continuing. He told her to trust him, and because of her dream, she did.
For survival, she started working as a day laborer. A month later, she found a job in a household as a domestic worker. Suddenly the agent called again and said he needed 150,000 rupees (approximately $1,500) to finalize the visa. Rubina provided him with the hard-earned cash she had earned over the previous two years—and then he disappeared. Now, seven years after trying to get to Japan on her own, she learned it generally takes a week for the embassy to process visa applications. She could not believe she had trusted a liar agent over six years.
Rubina had to move on. She took a job as a domestic worker and made plans to start a business, until the 2015 earthquake shattered that dream. Still, she says she is fortunate that she was able to fulfil her dream, at least in part. Today, after paying 400,000 rupees (approximately $4,000) to another labor recruiter, Rubina is working outside of Nepal—in Turkey as a domestic worker. She received a visa and, in 2017, left her country and began working for an affectionate family of three.
Krishma Sharma is a Solidarity Center program officer in Nepal.
Three years ago, Roshan Khatum, 14, was married to Sabir in Nepal’s Dhanusha District. (Although child marriage has been illegal in Nepal since 1963, Nepal has the third highest rate of child marriage in Asia.)
Shortly after they married, Sabir left for Saudi Arabia for work. Unable to find jobs to support their families, some 3.5 million Nepalis are working abroad. Many endure physical and other forms of abuse and some, like Sabir, cannot endure the suffering. Nine months after he left Nepal, Sabir committed suicide. At age 15, Roshan became a widow.
Losing her husband was not easy for Roshan. Her pain increased after she was pushed out of her home by her father-in-law, Leeyakat, who told her, “After losing our son, you are of no worth for us.”
Leeyakat travelled to Kathmandu to claim compensation for the death of his son. But when he learned that according to Nepal law the compensation money would be sent to Sabir’s wife, Roshan, Leeyakat said, “Let the body rot there, I don’t want it.”
Leeyakat returned to Kathmandu nearly nine months later, telling officials his daughter-in-law eloped so Sabir’s body could be returned to him as well as the compensation for his death. More than two months later, the coffin arrived in Nepal. His family performed the last rituals for Sabir according to the Muslim custom. However, Roshan was not informed. She did not even have the chance to see the body of her deceased husband.
During his visit to Kathmandu, Leeyakat had learned how to document his claim for compensation. He had even produced a forged document from the local village authority to pursue his claim. Leeyakat was almost successful in receiving the compensation. Yet just before receiving the payment, Leeyakat was caught.
But because Roshan does not have a marriage certificate, she cannot claim the compensation. Roshan only has a paper that states that she was married to Sabir as per the Muslim custom, which the government of Nepal does not accept as an authentic document. Further, because she was married at age 14, she is not technically a citizen of Nepal and so not eligible for government support.
Everyone in the village has tried to convince Leeyakat to come to a mutual understanding. Leeyakat has closed his ears. He doesn’t want to settle with Roshan, even though she indicated she would share half the compensation with him.
According to the insurance company policy, the claim must be settled within two years, leaving Roshan with only a few weeks before the time expires.
Krishma Sharma is a Solidarity Center program officer in Nepal.
Some two dozen human rights organizations are condemning the detention of two Nepali domestic workers in Lebanon, one of whom was deported.
Sushila Rana and Roja Maya Limbu were detained “without formal and clear explanation of the charges levelled against them,” according to the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF). Rana was deported December 10 (International Human Rights Day), while Limbu has been detained for more than a week without access to a lawyer.
The two woman helped found the domestic workers’ union in Lebanon in January 2015.
“This is a serious violation of basic human rights and (the International Labor Organization’s) core conventions on the right to organize and on freedom of association,” says Myrtle Witbooi, IDWF president. “We also call on the government of Lebanon to observe and abide by Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which ensures the right to be free from arbitrary arrest and detention.”
Migrant Workers Exploited, Have Few Rights
Migrant workers to the Middle East are rarely protected by labor laws and generally denied the ability to exercise fundamental human rights, including freedom of association, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, according to a recent report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of assembly and of association. Migrant domestic workers in Lebanon commonly report non-payment of wages, forced confinement, employers’ refusal to provide time off, and verbal and physical abuse.
Like most migrant workers around the world, many are forced to go into debt to pay excessive fees to labor brokers to obtain the jobs. Once in the country, they are governed by the repressive kafala system, which ties a domestic workers’ visa and work permit to one employer. Kafala results in situations where employers have unchecked control over migrant workers, exposing the latter to greater risk of exploitation and abuse.
Freedom of movement for the estimated 250,000 migrant domestic workers in Lebanon is restricted by employers who take workers’ passports and laws that limit their access to public places like restaurants, unless accompanied by their employer.
A 2010 Human Rights Watch report said that migrant domestic workers in Lebanon were dying of unnatural causes at a rate of one per week. Most of the deaths were attributed to suicide — many of the victims were falling from buildings while apparently trying to escape their employers.
More than 168 million children labor around the world, most denied an education and condemned to a cycle of poverty. The sheer number of child laborers underscores the need for reform in the many industries that employ child labor.
Reducing and eliminating child labor requires a focus on decent work for adults. In industries that regularly exploit workers—including not only brick kilns but also garment factories and palm oil plantations—improving wages and reducing daily production quotas make it easier for workers to provide for their families and enroll their children in schools. Trade unions and collective bargaining have helped workers around the world achieve these kinds of reforms.
In many South Asian countries, thousands of children labor in brick kilns under hazardous conditions. Child laborers, who are rarely given proper safety equipment, are particularly vulnerable to serious burns, cuts and other injuries while shaping bricks from wet clay, facing the searing heat from a kiln’s open fire and carrying stacks of finished bricks on their heads.
Entire families sometimes become bonded after borrowing money from someone such as a brick kiln owner. They then work to repay the loan but often are unable to pay off their debt, even over many years, because their wages are so low. The children and adult workers often cannot even leave the kiln and find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of debt. Children forced to work are unable to attend school, which severely limits their opportunities later in life.
Better Brick Nepal Tackles Roots of Child Labor
In Nepal, where more than 2 million children age 14 and younger are at work, the Global Fairness Initiative (GFI)’s program Better Brick Nepal (BBN) is helping to reduce child labor and improve working conditions in brick kilns. In a recent roundtable presentation at Humanity United in Washington, D.C., BBN leaders, joined by representatives from several international worker rights organizations, explained how their work brings together a variety of stakeholders from throughout the brick industry.
BBN, which gets input from labor unions, and its many partners, are using economic incentives to reduce brick kilns’ reliance on child labor. BBN instructs brick kiln owners on best practices for protecting worker rights and offers technical assistance in exchange. As employers improve safety and cut bonded labor and child labor out of the equation, BBN helps them update their facilities and boost their productivity.
Market-based incentives are also key to the Solidarity Center’s Decent Work Brick Kiln-Framework in Pakistan, where we joined with allies in the country to develop an economic incentive-based model in which brick kiln employers ensure their facilities meet decent work standards.
“Changing the Narrative” of Safety Inspections
BBN’s reach in Nepal has had a “huge expansion,” says GFI’s Nepal Country Director Homraj Acharya, from five brick kilns to 40 in just three years, and with many more kilns on a “wait list.”
Acharya estimates that BBN has reached more than 1,300 children laboring in brick kilns, providing them with the opportunity to attend school and escape “generations of marginalization.”
Acharya believes the devastating earthquake in 2015 played a major role in increasing BBN’s influence. Not only did rebuilding efforts provide incentives for brick kilns to increase their productivity through BBN’s program, he says, but the collective humanitarian experience inspired people to demand reform and embrace socially responsible industry.
As Solidarity Center Senior Program Officer Sonia Mistry writes, development and aid efforts to reconstruct Nepal should “support the rebuilding of Nepali communities by addressing the root causes of the exploitative labor migration cycle.
“This means creating decent jobs at home, and paying workers a living wage under safe conditions to rebuild their villages and their cities. Reconstruction contracts should go to companies that meet a high bar for labor standards—and comply with the International Labor Organization’s core conventions, including the right to form unions.”
“We are changing the narrative,” says Acharya. “Originally brick kilns didn’t want to see [inspectors]. Now they are saying, ‘We are willing to change and contribute to society.’”