Is banning female migrants from working as domestic workers the only solution?

By Subuna Basnet
May 22, 2017

In March 2017, the Parliament's International Relations and Labor Committee instructed the government to implement a ban on Nepali women to travel to Gulf countries for employment as domestic workers. The order was the result of a field visit the Committee made to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait - main destination countries for Nepali migrant workers- during which it found "widespread abuse and exploitation of domestic workers”. The ban especially affects female migrant workers, who account for 4.28 percent of total migrant worker’s population in 2014/15. They mostly originate from the hilly regions of Nepal, and also some plain areas such as the southern Jhapa, Morang, Sunsari and Chitwan districts (DOFE, 2014/15).

This is not the first time the Government of Nepal has imposed a ban on Nepalese female migrant workers. It has been imposing the ban, time and again, especially to the Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) countries. For instance before 1998, women were prohibited to leave the country without the consent of their guardian. After that, their freedom to mobility was further restricted by adding a clause requiring additional permission from the Government and subsequently a complete ban was instituted until 2003. The ban was partially lifted in 2003 to allow women to migrate for work, but only in the formal sector, and hence, domestic work was still banned. The ban was lifted in 2010 and again was reinstated in 2012 to prevent any woman younger than 30 from travelling to the Middle East for domestic work (DOFE, 2014/15).

It must be acknowledged that foreign employment in destination countries has not been a happy journey for many Nepali domestic workers. Domestic work does not fall within the scope of the labor laws of the most of the GCC countries. Instead, these countries follow the informal “Kafala” sponsorship system, where the employer pays for recruitment costs, and has the full economic and legal responsibility of the worker including making decisions on the working hours, payment, and work environment. The worst implication of this system is that the worker’s visa status is tied to the employer, and this does not allow workers to change employment or to leave the country without obtaining the consent from the employer. As such domestic workers are excluded from the protection and entitlement of the labor and security laws such as a weekly rest day, limits to hours of work, and compensation in case of work-related injury or abuse. (Bajracharya, 2011). In November 2016, Qatar announced that it had abolished the kafala system, but this claim was widely criticized for leaving its fundamentally exploitative characteristics in place (World Report, 2017) .

The media in Nepal is full of stories of female migrant workers, who travel abroad illegally as domestic workers using Nepalese and Indian agents and become forced laborers who are never paid for their work.. For example, just in Saudi Arabia alone, the Nepalese Embassy has rescued more than 700 female migrant workers, who have been sent back to Nepal. Currently, there are 24 more women in the Embassy’s shelter and 6 are in the process to come back. Among these women, many are physically, and mentally abused, some even have unwanted children. Some women never come back as data from the Foreign Employment Board shows that between 2008/09 to 2014/15 more than 85 female migrant workers died in 24 destination countries. More than 33 percent of these deaths are the result of suicide and while very little research has been conducted on the underlying reasons, it can be assumed that frequently reported problems such as contract violations or substitution, unpaid wages, unsafe work conditions, inadequate rest, inhumane, housing conditions, and confiscation of the worker’s identity documents are likely to be major underlying reasons.

The Government of Nepal’s intention behind the institution of the bans has always been to protect women from many risks, including long working hours, sexual violence, physical abuse and economic exploitation. However, rather than safeguarding women in migration process, this approach has often fueled women to find no other option, but to migrate through irregular channels if South Asian countries like India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Women being migrated through these channels do not attend mandatory orientation sessions, language trainings, and skill training and without a doubt this further increases their vulnerability to being trafficked, physically and economically abused. In addition, the repeated reinstitution of the ban on female migration to these countries has made most of the prospective female migrant workers confused about the current policy and thereby has further increased the likeliness of them resorting to illegal channels. Furthermore, fundamentally and most importantly, the ban hampers the freedom of Nepali women to make decisions regarding their preferred choice of work, limits their freedom of movement and constrains their ability to make their own livelihood. Given the poor economic situation of many household and the lack of jobs in many parts of Nepal, many women do not have choice other than to go abroad for employment.

What needs to be done instead? First and foremost, there is a need for creating economic opportunities for these vulnerable women inside the country in order for them to have a choice between staying in Nepal and going abroad for employment. For example the TEVT skills and entrepreneurship education needs to be promoted along with the special support for women starting or running a business such as seed funding, access to collateral-free loan and business mentorship.

For those wanting to go abroad, the Government should put in place measures that ensure the prevention of women from being exploited or trafficked in Nepal by recruitment agencies or abroad by employers. There needs to better information and awareness raising provision on safer migration such as employment opportunities abroad for potential female migrant workers, the costs involved, their rights, recruitment process, current government policies, cultural and religious differences, and readdress mechanisms, physical, sexual and mental health must be easily accessible to the potential female migrant workers. There are several information centers run by government and non-governmental organizations at district level and in Kathmandu. However, more needs to be done to reach wider audiences.

There is also a need to strengthen the legal protection for migrant workers. Currently, the Government of Nepal has signed bilateral agreements with three of the six GCC countries, namely Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE, but none of these agreements cover domestic workers. (Bajracharya, Kafala System and Its Implecations for Nepali Domestic Workers, 2012). As recommended by the Parliament's International Relations and Labor Committee too, there is the need for revising existing bilateral agreements and establishing new agreements between Nepal and the destination countries. Furthermore, more international pressure should be put on destination countries to include domestic workers in their labor laws, enforce strong prosecution to abusive employers, and conclude new cooperation and bilateral agreements.

Furthermore, there also needs to be better regulation of recruitment agencies as well as enforcement of existing laws and rules. For example, in April 2015, the Government issued a separate directive, related to the management of Sending Domestic Workers to Foreign Employment on April, 2015. The directive includes various clauses strengthening the protection of domestic workers, including a requirement that recruitment agencies sending domestic workers for foreign employment must deposit 25 Lakhs NPR to the Department of foreign Employment that allows for the provision of relief to abused victims. Other provisions such as, mandating the recruitment agencies to facilitate migrant workers in opening a salary account in Nepal and destination countries, rights given to the Nepalese embassy in the destination countries to demand the bank statement anytime to ensure the salary is being paid fully and on time, provision of compulsory registration of the female migrants movement between destination and home country are mentioned in the directive. However, in today’s world the labor migration has gone beyond the control of a states alone, and there is growing recognition of the need for cooperation between governments in formulating policies like this. Since, the destination countries were not involved in the process of formulating the directive, employer’s in the destination denied its application to them.

On the prosecution side, there is a need for stronger enforcement of the Human Trafficking and Transportation (Control) Act (HTTCA) to stop innocent migrant workers from being cheated. In the fiscal year 2015/2016, the Nepal Police Women’s Cell conducted 181 sex and labor trafficking investigations under the HTTC involving women and girls as the primary victims (Trafficking in Persons Report 2016, State Department). In one of these investigations, police arrested members of a transnational crime network involved in trafficking Nepali women and children in the Middle East and Africa. The government prosecuted alleged traffickers in 341 cases, but of these 227 remain pending. At the district level, courts convicted 260 traffickers during the fiscal year and acquitted the accused in 107 cases. However, victims of transnational labor trafficking often prefer to submit claims for compensation through the Foreign Employment Act, rather than pursue lengthy criminal prosecutions under the HTTCA, often to avoid the stigma associated with being labeled a trafficking victim and because the potential to be awarded compensation was higher.

Thus, the ban on domestic workers travelling to the Gulf might not be the adequate solution for safeguarding female domestic migrant workers. All that the Government of Nepal is doing since 1998 is banning domestic workers women for foreign employment, but efforts on finding long-term solutions such as establishing and revisiting the bilateral agreements and mutual cooperation with the destination counties have not been sufficient. Such bans have pushed more women desperately seeking for economic opportunities into using informal channels and at the same time has prevented the government and other actors to keep track of the women migrants before and after they leave. It has limited the economic opportunities for women and their freedom of mobility has been restricted. Women should not be punished for the lack of implementation of long-term solutions.