Nepal’s Rock and A Gulf State’s Hard Place: The Ban on Women’s Migrant Labor

By Joshua Smith | October 27, 2017

The export of unskilled migrant labor is a pillar of the Nepali economy, but a cross-section of the nation’s most socio-politically marginalized populations compose the majority of this workforce. Nepal has continually prohibited any legal process for women under age thirty to pursue domestic work in Gulf Countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the U.A.E. This exhausts most options for the unskilled other than exploitative, unsafe chartering through India’s nearby border. It pits a crisis very common in the homes of those Southern Nepalese: should I risk the danger of an illegal attempt to support my family?

Foreign employment plays a vital role in the economic backbone of Nepal with over fifty percent of households receiving remittances from overseas. These payments funneled back from workers abroad made up thirty-one percent of the Nepali GDP as of 2015. Seventy-five percent of these incomes are seeded in work visas classified for “unskilled labor”. Lacking specialized training and its access, unskilled laborers in the South lean into opportunities like domestic work. Within these already deprecated communities, Nepal’s industry sanctioning creates the heaviest impact.

Their dilemma is compounded by the chaos and controversy within Nepal’s constitutional government. Following the devastating earthquake in 2015, the Nepali government agreed to fast track a new constitution in an effort to alleviate political gridlock and replace the presiding interim constitution. The previous document was intended as a placeholder following the nation’s brutal civil war that abolished Hindu-centric government and established the secular state. The decision to fast track the 2015 constitution and the product itself have faced stark criticism and protest from minority groups in the Terai region of Southern Nepal. This is a region which consists largely of the Madhesi and Tharu ethnic groups, giving voice to issues of caste-based and gendered discrimination that they claim is still prevalent. This unrest has also been emboldened by the controversy of renewed demarcation of political districts by the most recent constitution.

Echoes of the sectarian social castes continue in Terai, despite provisions in the two recent constitutions and the nation’s ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The ethnic communities of the region continue to experience reduced literacy and educational development rates as well as health disparities. In an on-site visit, administrators at the Terai Human Rights Defenders (THRD) Alliance coined this phenomenon a “technocratic silo” with deference to the lack of representation these communities hold outside of agriculture and foreign employment. The advocates cited these inequities as a structural obstacle to “skilled” labor positions for the marginalized in Terai.

In the wake of this unrest, the government’s prohibition on domestic migrant work for young women continues. Nepal has also been a signatory to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) since 1991. A ban on female Nepali labor in the Middle East, instituted in 1998, was intended to ensure safety for female laborers amongst spiking trends in physical and sexual abuse. That ban was partially lifted in 2003, permitting legal migrant visas for professional sectors (e.g. nurses and cashiers). Nepal has seen several iterations of familiar sanctioning.

The most recent ban on foreign labor in the Gulf for women under age thirty was determined as the ideal solution for “widespread abuse and exploitations of domestic workers, mainly females in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.” Nepal’s International Relations and Labor committee instructed the government to follow through with sanctioning just last April.

It must be noted that the current state of illegal migratory systems is extremely unsafe. Unskilled Nepalese who fall under prohibition from the Gulf states are presented with few choices for employment within their own borders, while facing crippling economic hardship from the 2015 earthquake. Unskilled women seeking work are corralled into corrupt, unlawful networks. These employment agencies have been reported responsible for numerous human rights violations such as kafala (illegally retaining passports), inhumane working conditions, and facilitating human trafficking.

Human Rights Organizations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) have vilified the previous sanctions prescribing explicit, direct action against “discriminatory treatment of domestic workers” as the solution. The reactionary vice on women’s liberty abroad fails to address the outcries from INGOs that over half of the migrant labor from Nepal comes from these populations which do not hold access to skilled labour positions. Those most affected find themselves with few beneficial options for livelihood.

The coming months will indicate whether Nepal will experience the shift to an identity-based federalism that has been demanded since the interim constitution. This may result in an address of the domestic marginalization and foreign employment crises facing Terai’s female migrant population, but a pragmatic solution remains out of sight. It is unlikely that the gridlock will subside soon given the track record for Nepal’s constitutional gains; however, it is important to note that a large number of migrant laborers are returning to vote in the upcoming legislative elections. The elections will take place in the coming November and December. The new year will bring new political players, challenges, and likely demonstrations that may further rock the already turbulent nation.


Author Bio: Joshua Smith is a Junior from Johnson City, Tennessee studying Political Economy at Duke University. 

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