Nepalese Migrant Workers in Three Gulf Countries: Living and Working Conditions

[PHP Nepal Vol 1 Issue 6 Jun 2011] | The Gulf countries have become some of the most dynamic places for the Nepalese migrant workers since the mid 1990s. Nepalese migrant workers typically have high health risks because of their exposure to risky jobs and poor living and working conditions. A cross-sectional survey was conducted among 408 adult Nepalese migrant workers who had work experience of at least six months in one of the three Gulf countries (Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates) who were in Nepal at the time of recruitment and had returned to Nepal within the previous 12 months.

The purpose of the survey was to describe the living and working conditions of Nepalese migrants working in these Gulf countries. Potential participants were approached at two different types of site within Kathmandu: Tribhuwan International Airport and the hotels and lodges near the airport and the bus park. An interview-based questionnaire was used to obtain the information from these migrant workers. 

The migrant workers who agreed to participate in the survey were from many different parts of Nepal and the majorities were adult males, most frequently of age 26-35. Most had only primary level education. More than half 224 (54.9%) were involved in construction work in jobs such as laborer, scaffolder, general helper, plumber and carpenter.

The living conditions of the participants during their stay abroad were assessed by identifying their last residence and the total number of people sharing the accommodation. About half, 196 (48%) had basic accommodation at workers’ camps provided by the employer or company. About one third 126 (30.9%) lived in a single room provided by the employer. Very few participants stayed in a private house or an apartment either funded by them or provided by their employer. Construction and agricultural workers were more likely to be accommodated in worker camps than wholesale and retail trade workers or clerical workers. The design of the camps varied between employers. 173 (42.4%) were sharing a single room with 5 to 8 persons, but as we did not collect estimates of the room sizes (square meters), we cannot determine whether the accommodation was overcrowded or not.

Almost half of the participants 182 (44.6%) reported working all seven days per week in their last occupation abroad which means that they did not take rest days. Some participants gave several reasons why, but the most common major reason was an agency rule reported by 124 (68.1% of those with no rest days). Another common reason reported by participants was to earn more money, 74 (40.7%). Some participants did not know whether their employer allowed rest days or not.

The idea of the number of days of annual leave provided by the employer was not understood by all of the participants. Some of the answers suggested that some participants thought of annual leave as the holidays during the local festivals or other local public holidays. About a third of the participants 132 (32.4%) in this survey reported that they were not provided any type of annual leave by the employer during their last occupation. Of the 276 participants who received annual leave, almost all 257 (93.1%) were paid for their annual leave by the employer. More than half of participants 216 (52.9%) worked overtime in addition to their contracted hours and all who did so were paid by their employer for this overtime.

Out of the total 408 participants, almost half, 197 (48.9%), reported that they were harassed in their work place, some by more than one person. Most of these (136, 69.8% of those who reported that they were harassed) stated that the person most responsible for monitoring their work (supervisors/foramens) were also the person making them feel harassed. A very small proportion of participants, 3 (1.5%), reported that their co-workers were responsible for harassing them at work. Verbal abuse was one common type of behavior which was reported as harassment. The demands of supervisors of staff under their supervision was referred to as pressure or “work load” by the participants and was perceived as a form of abuse.

The findings from this survey suggest that more must be done to protect and support the Nepalese migrant workers in the Gulf countries. Living accommodation for migrants provided by employers should meet standards for adequate space and hygiene. Migrant workers should be made aware of any entitlement to annual leave and rest days by their employer or agency in advance of starting work. There should be clear rules about acceptable behavior in the workplace to protect migrant workers against harassment, abuse and exploitation. Employment agencies in Nepal and employers in the destination countries have responsibilities towards the workers. The Government of Nepal should take an active role in making migrants aware of the issues and in demanding that agencies and employers meet their responsibilities.

Suresh Joshi is a student of MSc. Health Service and Public Health Research at School of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Aberdeen, UK. This article is a brief write up by the corresponding author of the article ‘Health problems of Nepalese migrants working in three Gulf countries’.

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