KATHMANDU, Dec 19: The Nepali government’s failure to crack down on recruitment agencies charging illegal fees for jobs abroad is leaving migrant workers trapped in a vicious cycle of debt and exploitation, says Amnesty International.
New research has found that almost two-thirds of Nepali migrant workers who responded to a survey, carried out in Nepal and Malaysia, had paid excessive, illegal recruitment fees.
James Lynch, Deputy Director of Amnesty International's Global Issues Programme, said, “Nepali migrant workers are being systematically and mercilessly set up. Forced to take out loans to pay the huge fees recruitment agencies charge them to work abroad, they are left so indebted that they have no choice but to stay in jobs which often turn out to be low-paid or dangerous.
“The Nepali government’s weak enforcement of the law is playing straight into the hands of extortionists and loan sharks. Migrant workers all too often end up trapped in the soul-destroying situation of working abroad for years simply to pay off the huge, often illegal fees they were charged to take the job. Tackling this exploitative industry is a matter of urgency.”
The vast majority (88 per cent) of participants in Amnesty’s phone survey of 414 Nepali migrant workers reported that they paid fees to agents for their jobs overseas. Because these fees are so high, the majority had to borrow more than half the sum from village moneylenders, placing them in debt.
Workers’ calculations about how they will repay these loans are often derailed by unpaid wages or other forms of labour exploitation. More than half of the workers (53 per cent) surveyed said that they received lower monthly salaries than was promised to them by recruitment agents.
In July 2015, the Nepali government introduced the ‘Free Visa, Free Ticket’ policy, which reduced the maximum fee workers could be charged to approximately £75 after international outcry. But, Amnesty said, the policy is not being properly enforced. In June this year, Amnesty research showed that that recruitment agencies were still exploiting migrants by charging above the limit.
Only one in five (20 per cent) of workers surveyed by Amnesty said the government was implementing the policy.
Recruitment agencies who charge illegal fees often go to great lengths to evade scrutiny, including sending middlemen to collect the money rather than receiving it directly themselves. In Amnesty’s survey, 90 per cent of workers who had paid a recruitment fee did not receive an accurate receipt from agents. This makes it very difficult for them to file legal cases against unscrupulous agents and claim money back.
Disturbingly, some recruiters market Nepali workers to prospective foreign clients by highlighting how unlikely they are to leave their jobs. Amnesty reviewed and analysed 100 Nepali recruitment websites, and found that Nepali workers are frequently advertised with descriptions such as “loyal” and “completely dedicated to work even in adverse situations”.
Last month, Amnesty interviewed four Nepali workers whose agents deceived them about their working conditions. They were told they would work in a factory in Malaysia making labels for plastic bottles. Instead, they were sent to a steel manufacturer and asked to perform dangerous jobs without training. After witnessing several on-the-job injuries, the men tried to leave but the company would not pay for their tickets home or return their passports.
Heavily indebted after paying approximately £900 in recruitment fees, the men said they were trapped, scared, and unable to afford plane tickets home. The men were only able to return to Nepal in mid-2017 after fleeing the company and getting their families to take out new loans to fund their journey back home. They are now in Nepal, considering how to pay off the vast debts they have accrued. Migrating again is likely to be their only viable option.
Amnesty is urging the Nepali government and businesses to do more to tackle the corruption that is rampant in the recruitment industry in Nepal.
James Lynch said, “The Nepali government must do more to protect migrant workers, who make unimaginable sacrifices by leaving their loved ones for years to work overseas, and in return are cheated and exploited. A good start would be to penalise recruitment agencies that are not complying with the law.
“Companies who employ migrant workers in the Gulf and Malaysia, directly or through their suppliers or subcontractors, also have a responsibility. They need to take steps to prevent exploitative labour recruitment, and ensure that migrants in their supply and contracting chains who have paid recruitment fees are reimbursed. Until they take action, they are reinforcing the debt trap that is destroying so many lives in Nepal.”