© Colin Foo

Nepal: Unscrupulous recruiters given free rein to exploit migrants

The Nepali government is failing to address rampant deception and extortion in the country’s labour recruitment business, putting migrant workers at risk of forced labour abroad and leaving them with crippling debts, according to a report published today by Amnesty International.

“All over Nepal, unscrupulous recruiters are getting away with destroying lives – illegally charging aspiring job-seekers exorbitant fees to get jobs abroad, and then abandoning them overseas when things go wrong,” said James Lynch, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Global Issues programme.

“It is only when they leave Nepal that migrant workers find out that they have been deceived about everything from salary to working conditions. By then it is far too late and many end up with recruitment debts that may take the rest of their working lives to pay off.

“Migrant workers contribute nearly a third of Nepal’s GDP in money they send back home, yet the government spends a tiny fraction of its budget on their needs. It is high time that this equation changes and migrant workers receive the protection they are entitled to.”

Amnesty International researchers interviewed 127 Nepali migrant workers and dozens of government officials in 2016 and 2017, in eight districts of Nepal, for the report Turning People into Profits: Abusive Recruitment, Trafficking and Forced Labour of Nepali Migrant Workers. Almost all workers the organization spoke to had been subject to some form of abuse at the hands of private recruiters.

Lifelong debts

Suresh, from Saptari district, told Amnesty International how he had borrowed NPR 250,000 (USD 2,416) from a local moneylender, at an interest rate of 36%, in order to pay a recruitment agent. He was assured by his agent and recruitment agency that he would quickly be able to pay off the debt from his earnings abroad.

But at the glove-making factory in Malaysia where Suresh was placed he was sometimes unpaid for as long as three months at a time. When he did receive his monthly wages, they were USD 354 less than what the recruitment agency had promised. He could not leave the job or Malaysia because his employer had confiscated his passport when he arrived, and refused to terminate his contract. Suresh repeatedly called his recruitment agency for help, but they never responded.

When he finally managed to leave Malaysia two years later, Suresh had accumulated a staggering debt of NPR 550,000 (USD 5,317). Back in his village in Nepal he makes about USD 50 to 100 per month – meaning it could take him as long as five decades to pay off his migration debts.

“The attitude of recruiters is about buying and selling people. And our people end up being abused, because the government does not prevent them from being traded like cattle,” said Suresh.

Migrant workers who had gone abroad before 2015 reported paying, on average, USD 1,346 (NPR 137,000) to recruitment agents and agencies for their jobs abroad. This is USD 549 more than the limit under Nepali law at the time.

No choice

In the absence of decent work opportunities at home, an increasing number of Nepalis feel they have no choice but to look abroad for work, with more than 400,000 migrating for jobs overseas every year.

Job-seekers are exposed to a number of abuses by local agents and recruitment agencies. They are often deceived about the nature and terms of their foreign employment and cornered into paying illegally high recruitment fees.

Recruiters often confiscate their passports and refuse to provide other essential documentation such as contracts and receipts. One agency told Amnesty International he charged high fees because if he did not, migrant workers might be able to leave the jobs they were placed in:

“If workers run away, a company loses its investment… If they do not have to pay money for their jobs, then they will think they are going abroad on a vacation. They will think they can just come back to Nepal whenever they like.”

Once they move abroad – the vast majority to Malaysia or Gulf countries – migrant workers are at serious risk of exploitative working conditions which can amount to forced labour. Workers’ visas are generally tied to their employers, meaning that if they leave they risk becoming undocumented and losing their right to work or remain in the country.

Undocumented workers are easily re-exploited. While struggling to earn or borrow money in order to return home to Nepal, workers face threats of arrest, detention, and prosecution for immigration offences. Several Nepalis who became undocumented migrant workers told Amnesty International researchers how they were forced to seek out exploitative black-market “repatriation agents”, who charged high fees in order to get them home.

Under Nepali law, recruitment agencies are required to pay for the repatriation of workers whose terms of employment are found to be different to those stipulated in the original contract. However, Amnesty International did not identify a single case in which a recruitment agency had fulfilled this obligation.

Good intentions, bad implementation

The Nepali government has taken some potentially positive steps towards tackling the pattern of abuse suffered by workers, most notably the “Free Visa, Free Ticket” policy, which took effect in July 2015.

This is supposed to drastically limit the amount that recruitment agents and agencies can charge workers, by requiring foreign employers to pay for airline tickets and visa processing costs, and lowering what recruitment agencies can charge workers in service fees to NPR 10,000 (USD 96).

However, none of the 127 workers Amnesty International spoke to were able to find a recruitment agency that would not charge them for visa and ticket costs, or respect the limit on service fees stipulated in the “Free Visa, Free Ticket” policy. Meanwhile the recruitment industry has vigorously opposed the policy, going on strike twice in protest to pressure the government into reversing its stance.

“Despite some bright ideas, a lack of political will combined with bureaucratic inertia means that businesses are still effectively free to exploit migrants. It is abundantly clear that the Free Visa, Free Ticket policy is not being implemented or enforced properly,” said James Lynch.

“The Nepali government needs to invest fully in protecting migrant workers, starting with the proper implementation of key laws and policies which stop recruitment agencies from making quick money off the back of poor people’s futures.”