After completing high school, I left Kathmandu for the United States to pursue a higher education. That was around 15 years ago and back then, most young people who left Nepal went to similar destinations in the “developed world.”
Not my cousin. He dropped out of high school and went to work in the Middle East. Close to two decades later he still works there, having just left Nepal for another two-year stint.
At the time, he was something of a pioneer. But today, millions of others have followed in his footsteps and gone to other developing countries in the so-called “Global South” in search of opportunity. In fact, between 2000 and 2013, more people from developing countries migrated to other countries in the Global South than to traditional destinations like Europe or the United States.
At Tribhuwan International Airport in Kathmandu, the lines of people waiting to board flights for the Middle East now dwarf those headed to Europe, Australia or North America.
The jobs which attract them tend to be low-skilled, but still pay much more than similar work at home. My cousin, for example, has a sales job and makes around $1,000 per month, which is about five times as much as he made selling tyres in eastern Nepal.
Paying a price
But the extra money comes at a price. He has to give his passport over to his employer when he arrives and needs an exit visa to leave the country. For all intents and purposes, he cannot go home without this employer’s consent.
“Some of my friends have been held up for six months, even after leaving their jobs,” he says.
Compared to many workers in the region, he counts himself lucky. He has furnished sleeping quarters, which he shares with three other men, and works in an air-conditioned complex. But he says that Nepalis often fare much worse.
Statistics are patchy, but reports of forced overtime, delayed wages, harsh working conditions and poor access to healthcare are common place.
Moreover, many migrant workers—including my cousin—often have to borrow money to move abroad and spend much of their first years’ earnings paying it back. My cousin is still repaying the $8,000 loan he took out to leave Nepal for his latest stint in Gulf. And yet, he’s still able to send $600 per month home—money his young wife depends on to raise their two-year old son.
Evidence shows that, even despite the debts taken on by many migrants, they are still able to send back enough to reduce poverty and improve the quality of health care and education for their families. They also play a vital role in the countries they move to, filling jobs that contribute to their economic growth. In doing so, they help to offset problems faced by aging societies, such as a shortage of workers paying into pension schemes.
Migrant workers deserve better than to be exploited. Better labour inspection of sectors such as construction that tend to employ migrant workers, availability of legal recourse for workers to lodge complaints, possibility to have workers’ representatives, access to public services such as health care – are some of many policy measures that could be put in place in the destination countries.
My cousin and I live very different lives, but we are driven by the same creed – a quest for a better life, not just for ourselves but our families and children. As the world becomes ever more connected, we are all more likely to live and work outside our own country of birth. It’s in everyone’s interests to make sure migrant workers’ rights are protected.