The Nepal Umbrella Foundation is an NGO that aims at protecting workers from overcharging by recruitment agencies. Photo: Nepal Umbrella Foundation
The Nepal Umbrella Foundation is an NGO that aims at protecting workers from overcharging by recruitment agencies. Photo: Nepal Umbrella Foundation

I am privileged to be a trustee of the Nepal Umbrella Foundation, which rescues and rehabilitates young men and women trafficked into slavery and prostitution. The foundation’s remit, however, does not embrace the institutionalized exploitation of these vulnerable people by their own government and licensed recruitment agencies.

Corrupt agents and government officials in Nepal are bleeding millions of dollars from their own countrymen and women seeking foreign employment.

With an adult unemployment rate of 46%, it is natural that Nepalese look for employment overseas. Their primary destinations are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and India.

About 23% of Nepal’s gross domestic product is derived from remittances from overseas workers.

It may surprise people to know that the country has a relatively well-developed legislative framework governing foreign employment of its citizens. However, the existence of the legislation is where provision of protection for such workers ends.

A comprehensive review by the organization Verité revealed that monitoring under the legislation is virtually worthless. None of the recruiting agents interviewed held the mandatory license. Most if not all recruiting agencies charged fees in excess of the statutory maximum.

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All workers on overseas work contracts are supposed to go through a training program, but many of the training establishments provide a certificate for half the fee without requiring the worker to go through the program.

Training programs

Most of the recruiting agencies retain workers’ passports before departure to ensure that they cannot approach a rival agency. No receipts are required or delivered for payments made by the workers to the agencies.

The necessary paperwork is so complex that workers are virtually  compelled to go through recruiting agencies.

All applications have to be processed by the Department of Foreign Employment, which only has an office in Kathmandu, thereby necessitating the cost of travel and accommodation in addition to all the other fees and expenses.

But quite apart from the bureaucratic hurdles in the path of those seeking overseas employment, the United Nations has determined that the major beneficiary of the corrupt practices involved is the very government organ established to oversee the process, the Ministry of Labor Transportation and Management.

In reality, this institutionalized criminality has been in place since Nepalis first began to seek employment abroad. It is financial cannibalism.

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First in line are the recruiting agencies in Nepal. They charge fees for every aspect of the process but their mental approach is to gauge how much money they can squeeze out of each applicant. Even if they adhere to the official fee rate on paper, there will be additional charges for everything including verifying citizenship certificates, booking appointments with government organs, organizing health checks and certificates – the list is endless.

Even making flight reservations affords an opportunity to do a deal with an airline or travel agent for another “commission”.

Once the worker is on his or her way to an overseas job, the agency washes its hands of any responsibility.

Some years ago, an ex-Gurkha officer friend of mine established an office in Kathmandu to employ people to staff his UN-sponsored mine-clearing contracts. He provided training and health and life insurance. His expenses were all covered under his contract with the UN, hence the recruits engaged by his company were not charged any fee.

Recruiting agencies in Nepal recognized that this constituted a dire threat to their modus operandi, and they mounted a concerted attack on him, deploying every government department to shut him down. It was futile for him to point out that he was not an agent but the direct employer.

Imagine his frustration and disgust when he discovered that the gatekeeper to his office compound was charging a fee just to allow an applicant inside!

Financial exsanguination

All the agency fees and assorted excuses for financial exsanguination have to be paid up front, which means that the would-be worker has to take out a loan. If his family cannot put up the funds, he falls into the hands of moneylenders charging interest rates as high as 15-20%.

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The government’s stranglehold on job-seekers gets tighter as each government department has to be negotiated with. Even the civil servant responsible for making the appointments demands a “fee”.

Armed with his contract, passport and airline ticket, the worker must next surmount the hurdles at the airport. There is a separate Immigration Department channel for “foreign workers” that affords another opportunity to fleece him.

Once through immigration, the worker must go through security, which is manned by the Nepal Police, an organization with a well-tuned faculty for making unwarranted demands with threats.

By the time the worker arrives at his destination, he is front-loaded with debt.

Human ingenuity being what it is, it is less than surprising that many enterprising Nepalis attempt to circumvent this parasitic circus simply by applying for a visitor visa and then securing employment at their destination. The government of Nepal is appalled at this brazen attempt to avoid the institutional daylight robbery and is taking urgent steps to stamp out the practice.

For far too many foreign workers, their conditions of employment are little short of slavery, and the enhanced bureaucracy that has grown up around their recruitment is, in reality, legalized trafficking.

How ironic that the Nepal Umbrella Foundation should have to consider amending our declared objectives. Sadly, those of us familiar with the systemic corruption corroding the soul of Nepal know only too well the Herculean proportions of the task of throwing off this suffocating shroud.

Neville Sarony

Neville Sarony QC is a noted Hong Kong lawyer with more than 50 years at the Bar.