In an attempt to better regulate and protect workers leaving the country, Nepal has lifted a twelve-year ban on women traveling to Gulf states to become domestic workers.
Searching for a way out of poverty, each year thousands of women leave their homes in countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Philippines to work in the Persian Gulf as housekeepers and maids. Estimates of the number of foreign-born domestic workers in the area vary, but by all accounts they’re high: Human Rights Watch, for instance, says Kuwait alone hosts more than 660,000 migrant domestic workers. Unfortunately, these vulnerable foreign-born workers are often subjected to exploitation, legal injustice, and physical, sexual and emotional abuse by their employers.
In 1998, a Nepali woman died in Kuwait after allegedly being repeatedly beaten, raped and abused by her employer. Some accounts say she killed herself, others say her employer murdered her when she attempted to go to the police. In response, Nepal banned women from traveling to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to become domestic workers.
This ban has not proved to be very effective, as women desperate for work travel to the Gulf through India, usually after being recruited by unscrupulous middlemen. In fact, their reliance on unregulated middlemen can put them into terrible danger even before they reach their destinations. In 2004, the Nepali Times reported that women attempting to reach the Gulf states are often cheated and raped by “recruiters,” and can even be sold to brothels en route.
In addition, some have objected to the ban’s application to women only. Ganesh Gurung, writing in the Nepali Times, argues that the ban “violates the fundamental right of Nepali women to move freely regardless of gender.” He writes that furthermore, the ban is no solution at all:
Instead of trying to curb [trafficking women], the government has taken the easy way out and announced a ban, knowing full well that it will not work. The only people who will suffer from the ban will be the women themselves who will now have to pay bigger bribes through their recruiting agents. And when they suffer, they can’t even report it to the authorities because they are breaking the law.
A New Strategy
By lifting the ban, Nepal hopes to be able to protect migrant workers and monitor their movements in and out of the country. BBC News reports that Nepal will combat the mistreatment of workers by monitoring work conditions through the country’s embassies. “Before they can recruit workers, employers will have to assure us they will provide insurance, accommodation, security and a basic wage,” employment ministry spokesman Purnachandra Bhattarai told press. Nepali embassies will be responsible for defining minimum wage standards in each country.
In September, in preparation for lifting the ban, Nepali embassy official Vhattarai Pushpa told the Kuwaiti Times that the government of Nepal would like to work with the Kuwaiti government to reduce the number of recruitment agencies through which Nepali women are hired so the agencies can be more easily regulated. He said that recruitment agencies “should employ at least one or two Nepalese women, so that our citizens [sic] concerns are addressed properly.” Vhattarai also emphasized the importance of training domestic workers so they would be comfortable with the culture and language of their host country.
Having a record of all the Nepali women working in the Gulf states in domestic capacities would allow the government to come to their aid more quickly if they do run into trouble, Vhattarai said.
I am not convinced that the monitoring system will be entirely effective — after all, during recent cases of abuse of their citizens, Sri Lankan and Indonesian government officials asked for justice for their citizens without apparent success. In the case of the domestic worker’s death that precipitated the Nepali ban, according to the Nepali Times, the women’s employer was never tried. Nepal doesn’t have much leverage over countries like Qatar or the U.A.E., so it’s hard to imagine that standards will be enforced without the active cooperation of the host countries. Up till now, the Gulf states have not seemed particularly inclined to cooperate in protecting foreign-born domestic workers.
However, given the dangers women face being illegally trafficked out of Nepal and the fact that women are continuing to pour out of Nepal and into the Gulf despite the ban, legalization and regulation may be the lesser of two evils.
Probably the only true solution is the alleviation of poverty in countries like Nepal, so women have job opportunities within the country — after all, they’re not becoming migrant workers on a whim, they’re acting out of desperation. In the meantime, countries like Nepal must continue to look for ways to protect their citizens as they work overseas, and the international community should urge countries with significant populations of migrant workers to ensure they’re being treated fairly.
The photo of women sifting grain in Nepal was taken by John Pavelka, and is reused from his flickr with thanks under Creative Commons License.